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Flower of China

Chapter Text

 

A rich melodic laughter filled the air in the backyard of a house in a little village in China. A young woman ran around, her bare feet barely touching the yard’s soft green grass as she giggled and danced around the beautiful cherry flowers that fell from the branches of tall trees.

‘Come on, Cixi. Come play. Let's have some fun!’ She called out to her friend.

The girl’s happiness was so contagious that, even though Cixi’s disposition was naturally melancholic, she couldn’t help but smile at her only friend’s beseeching. She set her sewing aside and went to the young woman; they held hands and started spinning faster and faster till Cixi couldn’t hold on anymore and lost her grip. They fell to the ground and burst out laughing.

‘I’m sorry. I couldn’t hold on! We were going too fast.’

The young woman sat up and winced, rubbing her hip. The fall had probably given her a bruise. ‘It’s okay, but I think we’ll have to sleep with our bellies down for a while.’

Cixi smiled at the ever-present cheerfulness in her friend’s voice. ‘Thanks for being my friend, Sakura,’ she said in a meek and serious tone.

Sakura stood up and closed in on her friend, giving her an almost bone-crushing hug. ‘Thank you for being my friend, even if I’m a foreigner’s daughter.’

The girls pulled away and shared a conspiratorial glance. They were both of them survivors in a discriminatory and sexist world.

Sakura was the love child of a Japanese officer who fell in love with a beautiful green-eyed young girl during the Japanese occupation of the Yuhan village sixteen years ago. When Kinomoto Fujitaka left the village with the Army, he had no idea that he had left a pregnant Nadeshiko behind after their only night together. He had promised to come back, but was never seen again and was believed to have fallen in combat.

As soon as the family found out about the pregnancy, they tried every known abortion method, but the fetus was strong and stubborn, and so Sakura came into the world against her mother’s family wishes. Nadeshiko’s family abandoned the newly-born at the village’s orphanage and moved away, hoping to conceal the dishonour and shame. 

‘Sakura! Cixi! Come help me with dinner!’

Both girls turned around to see a plump red-faced old lady scowling at them. 

‘We’re coming, Mrs Yang!’ Sakura replied, running towards her. As she got into the elder’s reach, Sakura felt a hurtful pinch on her arm.

‘You and your uselessness! Always getting in other people’s way, Sakura! Leave Cixi alone to do her chores. Unlike you, she has a real chance of becoming a proper wife and having a better life,’ she growled menacingly.

Sakura bit her lower lip, refusing to let out the whimper of pain from the pinch. Saying nothing else, the girls quietly walked inside the house.

The house in which Yuhan’s orphanage functioned belonged to Yang Huakang, a kind-hearted old man, and offered shelter to many girls from the neighbouring villages. Cixi herself was from a northern village. The Yangs raised and provided that the girls would grow up to become perfect wives and good mothers. With the dowry they got from each girl sent to be wedded, they raised the others and so forth. That’s how things worked, but sometimes Sakura felt like it was nothing more than a market. A marriage market.

‘Hello, Mr Yang!’ Sakura called in greeting as she walked by the man who was teaching some of the younger girls.

‘Hello, dear Flower! I’m sure that today we’ll have a delicious meal!’ He smiled tenderly.

Sakura loved that elderly man. He was like the father she never had. Actually, he was her whole family. Yang also liked the young girl, not just because of her skills in the kitchen, but because she was resplendent with life. While many of the girls were gloomy and spiritless, she was joyous, bright and enthusiastic in spite of her unpromising present and future.

‘Definitely! I’ll make your favourite!’

‘You would if we had any fish,’ complained Mrs Yang, walking into the room. ‘We need to marry one of the girls soon. We’re out of money.’

Sakura fell silent as she watched the old man’s smile fade away. 

‘You know well enough that the only one of age to be married is Sakura, wife.’ He stated, getting up and pacing around.

The old lady cackled, highly and unpleasantly. ‘Who would want to marry a Japanese girl?’

Mr Yang faced his wife, seeming displeased. ‘She’s not Japanese.’

‘She’s the daughter of a Japanese soldier! Plus, she’s too old. We’d have to pay someone to take her.’

The other girls derisively looked at Sakura. She didn’t really want to get married, but she also hated the scorn and contempt in those looks.

‘She’s beautiful and accomplished. I’m sure that if we take her to the Matchmaker, she’ll find a good match for our dear Flower,’ he said, watching the girl with a strained smile. 

Sakura smiled, despite herself. ‘I’ll make dinner.’ She excused herself and walked out of there, knowing that everyone was looking at her. 

As soon as the girl was out of the room, Mr Yang turned to his wife. ‘Take her to the Matchmaker tomorrow.’

‘But…’

‘No buts! Sakura will find a groom.’

‘Husband… She’s Japanese and we’re at war…’ The woman tried to argue, dispirited.

‘Do as I command.’ He said, at last, severely.

‘Yes, Sir.’


 

Sakura was asleep when she felt someone lean over her. She opened her eyes to find Cixi looking at her. ‘What are you doing here? It’s late.’ She asked, muffling a yawn.

‘You’re going to the Matchmaker tomorrow. I wanted to wish you good luck,’ Cixi said tenderly and beamed. ‘I hope you find a beautiful husband. Maybe even a Captain from the Emperor’s Army!’

Sakura offered an uneasy smile. ‘Maybe…’

‘There are rumours that His Majesty’s troops are in Shanghai. This will be a great opportunity!’

‘They’re not in Shanghai to get married, Cixi,’ Sakura explained. She heaved a sigh, thinking about her young friend’s innocence. ‘Go back to your bed. If Mrs Yang finds you here, she’ll punish both of us.’

‘Alright.’ Cixi kissed Sakura’s cheek. ‘Good luck!’

Sakura watched as her friend tiptoed back to her mattress on the other side of the room. She lied down and turned, staring at the Moon through the window.

She would go to Shanghai in the next morning to meet the Matchmaker. She could feel her heart constricting inside her chest at that thought. She didn’t want to go, didn’t want to get married. She was contented there, despite Mrs Yang constant nagging and the other girls’ disdain. Who could tell what she would go through with an unknown husband? In that house, she felt safe, at least. She never wanted to take care of a husband or give birth to children.

Sakura held tightly to a cherry flower pendant hanging from a delicate chain around her neck: the only thing she had from her mother. ‘May Buddha watch over me tomorrow…’ She said a little prayer, before turning to sleep.


Shanghai was a joyous city, quite different from the Yuhan village. Sakura sat quietly beside Mrs Yang at the two-wheel gig, trying not to gawk too openly at all the activity going around the city, afraid that she’d attract the woman’s attention and fury. The old lady was exasperated and refused to even look at the girl by her side; she probably knew that trip would be a waste of time.

‘Here we are, Madam,’ said the young boy who was conducting the gig as he stopped it.

‘Let’s go, Sakura,’ Mrs Yang said, climbing down from the cart. ‘Behave yourself and say nothing. Let me answer the Matchmaker’s questions.’

Sakura agreed and climbed down as well. The boy helped her down and smiled at her, making her blush. She was startled when Mrs Yang called her again and quickened her pace. They stopped in front of a demure little house and Mrs Yang clapped thrice; then they just waited.

A few minutes went by before an old lady showed up at the door. Despite her age, she still possessed beautiful features. Her sharp eyes locked on Sakura. ‘Why, but you brought me a beautiful one this time, Yang. She does seem quite old, though, doesn’t she?’

‘If only that was all,’ sighed Yang. ‘She’s a Japanese daughter, Mrs Miyu. You see my problem.’

Mrs Miyu’s expression changed at hearing that. She pursed her lips and stared at the girl as if repelled and grabbed Sakura’s face between her gaunt fingers, forcing her to look up. ‘Indeed, the girl is exquisite, but her blood is tainted.’

Sakura felt like giving the old woman a piece of her mind but thought it better to remain quiet.

Mrs Miyu let go of her face then and turned back to Yang. ‘No respectable man would want to marry her.’

Sakura clenched her jaws. Even though she knew this would happen, it was still humiliating to hear that she was unworthy of a marriage.

‘I knew it,’ Yang said, discouraged.

‘I apologise, Yang, but I can’t help you this time.’

‘What can I do with her?’ Yang inquired. ‘We are in need of a dowry and she’s the only one of age to marry since we lost some of our girls to Winter cold-spell.’

The Matchmaker turned back to the girl and curled her lips with a foul look distorting her face. ‘There’s only one destiny for beautiful, impure, impoverished women, dear… Take her to Quang Dan. He’ll pay a good price for her.’

‘Yes... He’ll pay.’

Yang grasped Sakura’s arm and pulled her away from the Matchmaker’s house, walking through the intricate maze created by Shanghai’s narrow streets. The girl couldn’t understand what was going on. Who was that man? Was that how a Matchmaker worked? Just give a name and that’s it...?

Sakura felt the grip tighten around her arm and noticed that the old woman was agitated, for the hand pulling her arm was shaking as she forced Sakura to walk faster. The surroundings changed in front of the girl’s wide eyes as they went through increasingly bleaker, filthier and more marginalised alleyways. Something wasn’t right.

‘Does my groom live here?’

‘Quiet and keep walking.’

They finally stopped at a grim back alley and Mrs Yang shakingly knocked at one of the doors – her clammy palm squeezing the girl’s wrist tighter. Sakura fidgeted, trying to lessen the hurtful grip, but that only made the woman twist her arm, violently pulling her forward. After what seemed like ages, the door creaked open at last.

Sakura widened her eyes at the sight of the shadows behind that door. She knew what that place was. ‘No…’ she murmured, trying to get rid of the woman’s grasp. ‘I don’t wanna…’

‘Shut up, girl! And get in… Do you think me happy to be in a polluted place like this?’ She dragged the girl through the threshold and turned to the flimsy looking man who had answered the door. ‘Where’s Mr Quang?’

The man pointed to the centre of the room, all the while lustfully ogling Sakura. She wrapped her arms around herself, feeling violated.

Yang forcefully dragged Sakura along to where a man was surrounded by women with their clothes half-opened, shamelessly displaying their bodies. The girl was tossed on her knees in front of whom she supposed was Quang Dan and shivered, closing her hanfu tightly around herself.

‘I thought you’d never again bring me another of your precious jewels, madam,’ Quang sneered.

‘This one can’t be taken on the right path.’

The man narrowed his eyes, closely watching Sakura. ‘Why, but this is the most beautiful one you’ve ever brought me.’

‘Her blood is rotten,’ Yang replied, disgusted.

‘I see… This isn’t a problem here.’ He smirked. ‘She’s unscarred, I hope.’

‘Yes, and she’s unsullied.’

‘Perfect.’

‘How much?’ The woman inquired, all businesslike.

The man stood up and circled the girl who watched everything from the floor with her beautiful green eyes wide open in fear. He knelt before her and gripped Sakura by the chin, making her look his way and noticed that her lips were quivering even as she tried to move away from him. He sneered and got to his feet, pulling her up with him. ‘250 coins.’

Yang widened her eyes. ‘Oh, thank you, Sir! This is a very generous offer.’

‘Spare me of that, fool woman,’ he said derisively, taking a pouch of coins from the loose sleeve of his clothes and giving it to the woman who kissed his hand in gratitude. ‘Now get out of my sight.’

When Yang turned away, despair finally spurred Sakura into action. She squirmed, trying to get away from Quang Dan’s grip. ‘Wait, Mrs Yang, please!’ She pleaded. ‘P-please, don’t leave me here!’ Her lower lips were trembling as tears ran down her cheeks from the beautiful emerald coloured eyes. ‘Please!’

But Mrs Yang didn’t even turn back. Instead, she dashed out of there, clutching the coin purse close to her chest. The door closed behind the old woman’s back and Sakura saw whatever hopes she had left walk out through the threshold. She stared at the man, who still held her wrist tightly, with wide panicked eyes.

He leant over in her direction, pulling her closer as she tried to move away. ‘Are you afraid?’ He asked with a raspiness of desire in his voice.

‘I want t-to leave,’ she said with trembling lips which seemed to greatly amuse him.

Quang stared at her with unblinking eyes and pursed his lips. ‘You’ll never leave. You’re my property now, Baby doll.’

‘I’m not married to you,’ she answered with defiance, though her whole body shook violently.

He pointed towards the many women around them. ‘They aren’t nor will ever be married. Just look at them…’ Then he pulled her, burying his nose in her hair. ‘Neither will you,’ he whispered.

‘I-I want to go,’ said Sakura once again, stepping back, her eyes flicking from side to side.

‘You can’t.’ He held her face tightly, forcing the girl to look into his eyes. ‘I’d love to deflower you myself, but your purity will be a lot more profitable tonight.’ Quang released her face and dragged her through a corridor into one of the bedrooms of that hellish place.


Sakura paced around the bedroom where Quang had locked her in, clenching and unclenching her fists. Some of the women had bathed and perfumed her, forcing her to wear a beautiful red silk Hanfu with golden embroidery. Ironically, they’d dressed her up like a bride, elaborate makeup and all, which only made the girl even angrier. She felt like a caged animal and just thinking of Mrs Yang’s treachery made her clench her jaws and bare her teeth.

‘That old Harpy! Sold me to that disgusting man as if I was an object!’ she snarled viciously.

She wouldn’t just sit and quietly comply as they tried to turn her into a concubine. Once again, she tried to force open the windows, to no avail. Mr Quang had made sure that all exits were securely closed. Sakura ran her hands through her hair, messing with the elaborate hairdo she wore, and setting her lustrous long honey-coloured hair half loose over her shoulders.

She could hear men and women laughing outside the door and knew it was already late and that every minute she stayed in there reduced her chances to get away before the worse could happen. She needed to find a way out of there or she’d become one of those women.

She started opening the drawers in search of anything that could help her open a window. Despair grew inside of her as the boisterous laughter outside grew in intensity. Inside one of the dressers, she found a sharp jewel-encrusted metal hairpin. Her lips curled just slightly as she thought that it could be used as a knife. Behind her, the door opened and she furtively sneaked the hairpin inside her sleeve.

‘It’s time, girl!’ She heard Mr Quang’s voice and slowly turned around.

She looked at the opened door, listening to the voices outside and held tightly to her improvised weapon, keeping her hands hidden under her sleeves. It would be useless if she were to use it there so she just took a step back, refusing to quietly conform to that kind of destiny.

The man narrowed his eyes, clearly displeased by her reaction and walked into the room grabbing her by the forearm. ‘Come along, at once! I’m anxious to see how much they’ll pay me for your virtue.’

‘Disgusting,’ she hissed as he dragged her to the main hall. Sakura’s eyes darted around frantically as she tried to come up with a plan to escape.

When she took notice, she was standing in the centre of a large room, surrounded by men in imperial uniform, all of them drinking and shamelessly touching Quang’s girls. The music had been interrupted and everybody was now looking at her. She instinctively cringed in embarrassment.

‘Gentlemen! Behold this exquisite Chinese flower!’ Quang’s voice reverberated through the silent room. ‘She’s as pure as a bride and the newest jewel of my collection. I'd like to propose, as a game, that we have an auction to settle which of you honourable guests will enjoy this rarity in my establishment.’

The room was instantly filled with animated chatter as the men hungrily stared her up and down. Sakura widened her emerald eyes. She could not imagine that the fear shown in her eyes only aroused those men.

‘Let’s start with 50 coins!’ Quang declared.

'60!'

'65!'

'70!'

'100!' slurred a man so drunk he probably didn’t even know what he was saying anymore. 

Sakura tried to pry her arms loose from Quang’s tight grip to get away but it was useless, the man was a lot stronger than her.

'102!' Yelled another.

And thus the bids increased till the only ones able to pay for the girl were three of the most senior officers. Quang grinned, satisfied as the bids came closer and closer to what he had paid for her.

‘I have 178! Who’ll give me more?’ Asked Quang Dan, looking around the mostly silent room. ‘178! Going once, going twice…’

'300...' Someone said loud enough to be heard from across the room.

Quang could barely hold back his laughter. Everybody looked back and saw a young officer quite cosily seated between two harlots. ‘Are you sure of the sum, Major Li?’

The man smirked and stood up, strutting towards the brothel owner; his steps not as steady as he’d like them to seem, though he still made quite an impression. He halted in front of Quang and dropped a heavy coin purse into his greedy hands.

‘I just hope your bitch is worth it.’

‘Oh, yes, Sir! I’m sure she’ll answer to your expectations.’

Li said nothing, just took Sakura by her arm and pulled her with him to one of the rooms upstairs. He pushed her inside and locked the door, regarding the girl who had her back to him.

Sakura scrutinised the room and was satisfied to notice that the windows weren’t closed. She heard a thud behind her and jerkily turned around to find the man placing his sword on a table as he stripped out of his clothing.

‘I just paid 300 coins for you. You could at least help me out of my armour, huh?’

‘I-I’m not a bitch.’ She said, looking him in the eyes.

Li raised an eyebrow with a half-smile. ‘Are you not?’

‘I am not.’

He only smirked and continued to undress.

When he took off his shirt, Sakura widened her eyes and turned around, blushing deeply and holding her breath. She’d never seen a shirtless man before. 

She nervously wrung her hands and held so tightly to the hairpin that it pricked her skin. If that man tried anything against her, she’d defend herself.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

 

Sakura took two steps toward the window in front of her and lifted the curtains, looking out through it. “It’s high! Dammit! I don’t think I can jump through here…” She thought; trying to come up with a way out.

She suddenly felt herself being held from behind and tensed up as two strong arms enlaced her by the waist. An unusual heat spread through her body as she felt the man’s lips on her skin when he started kissing her neck. Her heart felt like exploding.

‘Don’t be afraid,’ Li whispered in her ears, making her shudder from head to toe.

‘No, don’t!’ She cried out, trying to get away from him.

Li turned the girl around and glared at her while holding her arms. ‘Look, bitch, I don’t have patience for theatre.’

‘I already told you I’m not a bitch! Now let me go!’ She pushed him forcibly, disentangling herself from his grip. Taking a step back, she pulled the hairpin out and pointed it at the man’s chest. ‘I’m warning you! I don’t wanna hurt you, sir, but I won’t lie down with you,’ she said forcefully, trying to hide the trembling in her voice.

Li crossed his arms in front of his naked chest and glared at the girl in front of him. ‘I should warn you that I can’t stand this kind of scene,’ he said, making her widen her eyes. ‘I have pretty straightforward tastes, girl. So don't think that this act in defence of your virtue will arouse me. I’m not the kind of man who has these fantasies. Just lie on the bed and open your legs, already.’

Sakura felt a wave of revulsion that almost made her drop her impromptu weapon, yet she suppressed the nausea and held the hairpin even tighter, pointing it towards the Major. ‘I’m not the kind of woman to make a scene, sir. I already told you that I’m not a bitch and if I’m here, it’s against my will!’

‘Argh, by the Ancestors! Again with this? I can’t take it any longer…’ Li hissed impatiently and took two long steps in the girl's direction. 

She tried to stab him with her pseudo-weapon. However, a hair ornament in the hands of a little girl was of no consequence to a Major of the Chinese Army. Li quickly disarmed and restrained her, pinning the girl down on the bed with his own body and opening her dress.

Sakura felt her body heat up in embarrassment as the man touched her in a way no one ever had before. She didn’t want that. When Li tried to open her legs, she reached out for the first heavy thing she could from the side table and bashed it against his head, causing the man to collapse over her body.

Sakura needed a couple of seconds to calm her heart and think clearly again. She pushed the heavy body away from her and stood up, closing her hanfu tightly again, breathing heavily. She looked at the man lying on the bed with a bloody head and a terrifying notion crossed her mind, making her shiver in fear, as she wondered if she had killed him. The girl hesitantly knelt down beside him and blushed as she placed her ear over his bare chest. She shied away, breathing easily as soon as she could hear his heartbeat.

‘He’s only unconscious…’ she muttered, relieved. It would be no good if she had killed an Imperial officer. ‘It serves you right! I warned you that I wasn’t one of those women,’ she taunted the big knocked-out man with a slightly tight-lipped smile.

Sakura stood up from the bed and neared the window, looking down. As she had thought, it was too high. She ran her hands through her hair and scrutinised the room, trying to figure a way out of there.

‘I’ll have to make a rope.’

She quickly went back to the bed and, pushing the Major’s body aside, pulled the pair of sheets out, tying them together. It was still not enough to cover the distance to the ground. Thinking on her feet, she approached the door and just listened for a moment, before opening it to spy around the poorly illuminated corridor.

She tiptoed toward the next room and pressed her ear against the door. Upon not hearing any sounds within, she slowly opened the door, entering the room when she found it empty. She felt momentarily paralysed at hearing some loud moaning coming from the contiguous bathroom inside. Snapping out of it, she hastily pulled the sheets from that bed, as well, and covered the distance back to the door, tripping over a soldier’s uniform. Sakura couldn’t help opening a smile as an idea came to her mind.

If she went out dressed as a concubine, she’d attract attention and Quang Dan would probably find her in the blink of an eye. Now, if she dressed as a soldier, as a man, they’d never find her. She took the soldier’s clothes and boots and bolted back to the room where Li was still unconscious, locking the door behind her.

Sakura tied all four sheets together and calculated that it would still not cover all the way down, but that she could just jump the rest of the distance to the ground. She took Li’s sword and went to the bathroom, where she washed her face and cut her hair, being careful not to let a single strand lying around. She undressed the hanfu, tearing it down in a long sash, bound her chest, so that the volume of her breasts wouldn’t ruin her disguise, and dressed up in the soldier’s uniform. She had to fill the boots with rags before putting them on, to prevent them from flapping around. At last, she bundled her hair in what was left of the hanfu to drop it around somewhere.

She tied the rope to the windowsill and was about to climb down when her eyes settled over the man’s unconscious body again. There was a nagging feeling at the back of her mind about leaving him there like that. The girl shook her head, looking away and thinking that he was a disgusting pig just like Quang Dan. When she looked at him again, lying there with a bloody head, she couldn’t help consider that, even if he should have taken her word at face value, he didn’t know how she ended up there.

She closed her eyes with an exasperated sigh. ‘Damn you, heavy conscience!’ She murmured, gritting her teeth.

She hastened back to the bed, taking off the pendant she had around her neck. Sakura held tightly to her only valuable good. If the man sold the jewel, he could make up for part of what he paid for her. She bit her lower lip and, taking a deep breath, placed her pendant in his hand, closing his fingers around it.

She looked back at his face. ‘I don’t like the idea of being indebted to anyone. I’ll find a way to pay you what I owe you someday,’ she promised sincerely, before leaping towards freedom.


Li opened his eyes, feeling the sunlight irritating his eyelids. He took one of his hands to his throbbing head and felt some dry blood on his fingers.

‘Crazy bitch,’ he hissed, remembering that he had been hit by something.

Li sat on the bed, finding it weird that the red sheets had disappeared from under him. ‘Where’s that lunatic?’ He wondered, looking around the bedroom.

He felt something slide from his hand and looked down, seeing a cherry flower pendant there. He frowned, raising it to his eyes and staring at the delicate jewel while his other hand massaged his aching head.

‘My money!’ The Major suddenly widened his eyes, jumping out of bed and rushing in search of his coin purse to where he’d left his clothes in a pile the night before. He felt stunned to find it all there.

Li looked around the room again, holding his uniform in his hands and approached the window at the sight of the sheets tied to it. Looking through it, he could see the girl’s escape route.

‘So she really didn’t want to become a prostitute.’ He shook his head with a rueful grin. ‘Damn it! She cost me 300 coins...' he groaned, holding his head. 'And a headache.’

The Major washed his face and cleaned the blood from his hair, before dressing himself while thinking that he had wasted a perfect night off. Probably the last in quite a bit, as he’d have to present himself with his troops at The Forbidden City in two days for his new assignment. He looked through the window again, seeing that the sun was already high in the sky. They should’ve left Shanghai at dawn. He’d catch hell if he arrived late.

‘Damn that girl!’ He gritted his teeth while finishing putting his armour back.

He got his sword and was about to leave the room when his eyes locked on the pendant he’d left on the bed. He caught it and looked at it again for a long second, before deciding to tuck it into his pocket.

‘Soldiers!’ He mustered his men, walking down the hall toward the main room. Some of them were still asleep. ‘Men, we’re behind schedule to meet our Emperor, the Holy and Exalted One!’ he cried, even more annoyed at the delay.

There was a turmoil as they regrouped back into formation. At some point, a soldier started complaining that he couldn’t find his uniform, but Li paid no attention to that. He had his own problems and an aching head to worry about.

Mr Quang approached him, asking where his new precious jewel was and Li gave a gruff evasive answer, ignoring the establishment’s owner as he headed to his stallion. He couldn’t care less about the girl’s whereabouts and Quang was lucky he didn’t demand his money back.

Calling his soldiers again, he mounted the horse and took the lead on the ride to their destination.


Sakura walked aimlessly for the whole night. She had left Shanghai behind a few hours ago, taking a road to somewhere, though she had no idea where. What would she do with no money and nowhere to go? Where should she go? What could she do? She heaved a heavy sigh, thinking that she’d gotten out of the furnace only to get into the fire.

She held her stomach, hearing it rumble. She hadn’t eaten anything ever since the previous morning. Sakura always thought Shanghai to be a prosperous and modern city instead of such a dirty and marginalised place.

Suddenly, she heard the sound of horses’ hooves coming her way and felt her blood run cold. She forced herself to keep walking at a moderate pace without looking back and saw many of the horsemen pass by her without even a second glance until one of them stopped by her side.

‘Hey, Soldier! What is ya doing he’e by ya’self?’ The man called at her.

Sakura turned to look his way and opened her mouth to say something, but nothing came to her mind.

‘Ya clearly can’t hold ya liquor yet, huh?’ The soldier guffawed, loudly. ‘Come on, Kid! I’ll give ya a ride.’ He held out his hand to her.

Sakura would love to say that it wasn’t necessary, but how would she explain not being a soldier when she was dressed like one? She sighed and took the man’s hand, mounting on the horseback behind him.

‘Let’s hurry! We've to join His Majesty’s troops, but I think we’re late…’ The man explained, breaking into a gallop to catch up with the rest of the platoon. ‘Plus, Major Li is in a terrible mood. It looks like the girl he paid for last night wasn’t that good, if ya knows what I mean.’

In spite of her apprehension for being close to Major Li again, Sakura smirked, remembering the strong hit to the head she gave the Major. She really hoped that he’d woken up with a serious headache.

The soldier that helped her out was called Yancha and was quite jolly, despite being fat and somewhat filthy. He had awful eating manners and an even worse hygiene. If she hadn’t been starving to death, she’d never have accepted the slice of bread he’d offered her.

It wasn’t a very long trip, but it was a tiresome one. The Major ordered them to ride at a gallop for almost two days, with barely any stop, except for the horses to rest.

Sakura thought it to be the perfect arrangement, once it gave the troop no time to notice a stranger amidst them. Even with some of them having been recently recruited by the Major on the way to The Forbidden City themselves, she’d rather keep a low profile. As soon as they arrived at the meeting point, she’d find a way to disappear.

They got within view of The Forbidden City before noon of the second day, just in time for the meeting. Sakura felt mesmerised by the sight in front of her as the platoon crossed the gates to The Forbidden City and joined the bulk of China’s Army. There were legions, thousands of men, gathered in that wide open area in front of the palace and Sakura unconsciously shrank behind Yancha.

Major Li went ahead at a trotting pace, as high and mighty as ever.

Sakura had kept an eye on him during the ride, trying to stay away from his view and noticed that, despite being feared and respected by the soldiers, the Major wasn’t really liked by a lot of people. No wonder, once the man barely spoke a word to his men other than to give orders.

Yancha had told her that the man descended from an impressive military lineage and that he’d been promoted at a young age, but that, even if he was an excellent warrior and had an extensive service record, several officers resented his rank.

The Major dismissed them and dismounted expertly, strutting toward another gate.

Sakura dismounted from the horse hardly feeling her legs. They were numb and sore. She had felt them cramp a few times during the ride there, but bore it well.

‘Ya never been he’e, has ya, Kid?’ Yancha asked, shaking his head while laughing at her obvious wonder.

Sakura looked away from the magnificent golden-plated buildings around them and coughed, trying to coarsen her voice. ‘No, sir. I’ve never been anywhere so… impressive.’

‘I also never been he’e. Our Emperor is really The Son of Heaven,’ he commented with a trace of awe.

Sakura only nodded in agreement and followed Yancha around to join the rest of the troops while looking for a chance to escape. What she had grasped from the soldiers’ chatter was that countless high ranking officers would assemble with the Emperor there today to strategize against the Hun invasion of the Chinese territory.

Sakura heard a crier sort out the soldiers into two different groups, directing the experienced soldiers to one side of the courtyard and the new ones to another. Both groups would be enrolled in order to be assigned into new troops and put under an officer’s command.

She thought about taking that opportunity to flee, but Yancha dragged her with him to the draft line chatting with her enthusiastically. It was just her luck to befriend the friendless man and have him clinging to her like that. There was no way for her to get out of the noisy man’s sight without getting attention, so she just remained in line in front of him under the scalding sun. The heavy and sweaty uniform along with all the prattle around her were causing her a headache and vertigo.

‘Family name, boy,’ a sullen voice demanded, startling her out of her distraught.

Sakura widened her eyes, looking at the soldier brooding at her from behind a desk. How did she get to the beginning of the queue?

‘Are you a mute?’ he sneered when she delayed.

‘Hum…’ Her mind went blank and she couldn’t think of any name at all. Yancha have been calling her ‘Kid’, so she never thought about a name for herself up until now. She hesitated, biting her lower lip as she thought about what name she should give the man. ‘Kinomoto,’ she said, at last, giving her father’s name.

The soldier raised his eyes, glaring at her. ‘Are you Japanese, boy?’

‘No, sir! I’m Chinese.’ She replied out of habit, looking at the man in front of her.

The soldier frowned and looked at the scroll on his desk to write the name on it.

Suddenly, she widened her eyes, thinking of a way to be cast out from the army. ‘My father was Japanese, though,’ she said quickly, noticing that the man stopped the brush for a second before writing her name down.

‘Humph… Forename?’

Sakura hesitated for only a moment before answering with a name she remembered hearing somewhere. ‘Touya.’

‘Tou… what?’ asked the soldier, trying to write her name on the scroll.

‘Touya,’ she repeated, still feeling a bit uncertain.

‘Never heard of it…’ Mumbled the man. ‘Age?’

Sakura almost gave the man her real age but refrained herself just in time when she thought she’d never pass as a 16-year-old boy. They’d certainly suspect of her due to the lack of beard. She’d need to say she was younger, but it couldn’t be too young. How many years have passed since the Japanese troops were defeated? Was it ten or twelve? Either way, that was too young to pass as her age.

'I'm 14.'

The soldier sighed, staring at the little boy in front of him for a few moments. ‘Kinomoto Touya, your number is 678. Keep it in mind.’

‘Yes, sir,’ she said, feeling downcast about being unable to escape.

She walked away, dragging her feet while hearing Yancha boisterously answering the same questions. She scoffed and shook her head when the soldier asked the fat man “how much he weighed” and Yancha stammered, trying to convince him that all that fat was, actually, muscle.

Sakura sat, leaning against a wall and analysed that sea of men, wondering how would she get out of the mess she found herself in.


Li was seated beside various men, all dressed in pompous military attires elaborated for the sole purpose to showcase their high power. He could honestly say that he saw no good reason to hold those so-called strategic meetings. They never got anywhere because there was no one among those many officers who really excelled as a strategist.

He slouched comfortably in his seat, lightly massaging his head on the spot where that girl had hit him. A small smile played on his lips as he thought of her. He might’ve been a bit drunk, but still remembered the girl’s amazing green eyes. That was what had attracted him the most. It was exceedingly rare to see Chinese women with such beautiful eyes.

For a brief moment, he thought about where she might be, hoping that she had successfully escaped Quang Dan’s hands, as she obviously had been there against her own volition. However, escaping was also a grim fate for a young woman all alone in a city like Shanghai. He knew, by their brief encounter, that she had a strong temperament, but wondered how long she would be able to avoid some other man’s advances.

He felt his chest constrict a bit by thinking that, if she didn’t have such a strong disposition, he would have ended up raping her. He furrowed his brow at that thought. He wouldn’t deny that he enjoyed sleeping around with prostitutes and, sometimes, with naïve young ladies, but he had never resorted to brute force to get what he wanted of them. He had never needed to. He either seduced them or paid for what he wanted because he considered forcing women to sleep with him to be demeaning and cowardly, both of which were inconceivable in his opinion.

He ran his hands through his hair, tousling them even more than they already were. After that mess of war was sorted out, he’d go back to Shanghai and search for the girl to get to the bottom of that story.

He sighed, looking at one of the great hall’s corners while listening to the cacophony of voices trying to reach the best solution on how to defeat the Hun invaders, who had already destroyed several border villages before they could get any closer to their sovereign's palace.

A sudden stillness descended upon the room as everyone hushed and Li heard the sound of chairs scraping the floor. While absent-mindedly thinking about the green-eyed beauty, the Major failed to notice that the His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Wei of the Great Fu Dynasty had entered the room, followed by the Imperial Highness, Prince Yue, and his five most trusted Councillors, as well as the fact that every officer in the room had prostrated themselves on their knees.

‘Major Li.’ He heard the familiar voice of the Emperor and looked up, seeing the man himself almost in front of him with a stern look on his face for finding him still seated.

He floundered and knelt down, bowing his head in sign of respect and to try covering up his embarrassment. ‘Yes, Your Royal Majesty?’

‘You seemed to be quite spellbound.’

Li heard the prince sneering and frowned, raising his eyes just enough to see the Emperor’s reproachful look for his son before turning to look his way again. 

Emperor Wei was an elderly wise man, owner of a keen and ingenious mind, whom he greatly revered. His father, General Li Shang, had been Wei’s closest friend and confidant before dying in combat, which was why the Emperor held him in high regard. Unfortunately, the Emperor’s favour often caused great animosity between the Major and the Prince who was almost six years younger than him.

‘Forgive me, Your Majesty,’ he pleaded, humbly.

Wei looked at him and offered a weak smile, gesturing for everyone to rise and resume their seats. ‘So, gentlemen, what can we do to protect our lands and our people from the Huns?’ he inquired, taking a few more steps towards his throne, but stopped in front of the Major, watching him closely as if searching for something in his face.

‘We were discussing that, Your Majesty,’ stated a General, making him look away from Li and resume his walk up to his throne, where he sat facing everyone.

The Elder was truly worried and not only about the slaughter ongoing in China. With a heavy sigh, his eyes locked on the young Major again. ‘What do you think, Xiao Lang? What shall we do?’

Li took a deep breath, trying to buy some time and think about something to say. He knew the Emperor had only singled him out because he noticed that he hadn’t been paying attention to the discussion going on in that room.

‘We’re at war, son. We need to find a way to defeat the enemy or we’ll continue to lose precious lives. If General Li were here, he wouldn’t be distracted,’ the Emperor said patronisingly.

‘I’m certain that he wouldn’t, Your Majesty,’ he answered, grudgingly. Xiao Lang saw Prince Yue looking his way with a murderous look in his eyes. 

Wei nodded, with a kind and patient smile on his face, before turning back to the most seasoned officers trying to come up with a plan.

The Major remained silent for the rest of the meeting, feeling rattled by the way the Emperor treated him. It seemed like Wei would always see him, not as Major Li Xiao Lang of the Chinese Imperial Army, but as the brat, the son of his good friend Li Shang.


Sakura was munching on a slice of meat that had been given to the soldiers who were waiting for their new orders, while absent-mindedly listening to Yancha running his mouth. She had already noticed that the big guy was full of hot air, but, listening to him talk to the other men about women and fighting, she came to realise that all of them were the same.

She heaved a sigh, leaning back on the wall behind her and looking up with narrowed eyes as she thought about what to do now that she was left to her own devices. She couldn’t go back to Yuhan. Mrs Yang would probably send her back to Quang Dan, or perhaps the greedy old woman could try and sell her out to another whoremonger to make even more money out of her. No, she couldn’t go back and therefore had nowhere to go.

A lone woman, with no family and no husband, was as worthless as a stray dog feeding on the leftovers and rummaging in the garbage. Her throat constricted and unshed tears stung her eyes. She had to control herself and look brave. She couldn’t cry or it would all be over. Real men don’t cry, wasn’t it what they always said?

At nightfall, the Emperor himself showed up at the Palace’s balcony alongside the strong arm of the Chinese military. Looking at the elderly man, Sakura felt like there stood the kindhearted father of their great empire. Every soldier at the courtyard stood up to listen to their patriarch’s words.

‘Honorable Men of China! We are at war!’ the Emperor hollered, despite the frail and kind appearance. ‘Our lands have been invaded by villainous men who pile our money, burn our farms and homes, kill our children and defile our women!’ he proclaimed and then halted his speech, looking out for the soldiers' reaction and noticing that he had them riled up. ‘We need to protect our lands and the lives of our people!’

The soldiers roared afire with every word uttered by their leader and, even Sakura caught herself cursing China’s invaders along with the other men.

‘We’ll reassign you into new troops and we’ll defeat the Huns. We’ll show them that the Chinese men are forged by the rage of war!’

The soldiers cried out, frenzied and Wei said a few more words, before departing alongside with his trusted men. In the wake of his withdrawal, a soldier began to sort numbers followed by an officer’s name. Sakura sat back again, but the rest of the men were unable to sit still, as if they were ready to go to war.

‘From the number 1 to 100, report to Captain Ming Chan!’ The soldier howled, separating the hundreds.

Sakura looked at Yancha and asked him which number he was given.

‘679! I’m in the same group as ya, Kid!’ the big man laughed, patting her on the head.

‘But I was right behind you and got 514,’ Said a soldier who came with them along with Li’s platoon. ‘How are they classifying us?’

Sakura looked around at the men that had already been called out as they flocked around their designated commanding officers. ‘I think they’ve sorted us by strength.’

‘Then I’m in the same group as a kid?’ Yancha complained loudly.

‘It’s your own fault for being fat as a pig!’ Another soldier declared, bursting out laughing along with several others.

‘From 601 to 700, report to Major Li Xiao Lang.’

Sakura widened her eyes at the name of the commanding officer in charge of her group. It was just her luck! She was grudgingly dragged by Yancha to the North Wing, where the Major had been posted. 

It seemed that her chances of escaping that man and the situation she found herself in turned increasingly impractical. If Li even started to imagine that she was a woman, she’d certainly be beheaded in the town square.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

 

Xiao Lang paced around the little room, fuming with the hit dealt against his pride. He had been demoted! Oh, not officially, no. He was still a Major of the Imperial Army, but he had been put in charge of the saddest, spineless, most pathetic bunch of men he’d ever met. He could bet that in his troop were the worst and most hopeless of all men who had ever enlisted to serve.

‘Dammit all!’ he thundered, unable to control the anger he felt towards General Xue Lian, who, probably with the approval of Prince Yue, had made clear his contempt by giving him that assignment.

They have done that only to humiliate him and the worst was that the Emperor had sided with them. The man tried to control himself, but couldn’t stand the idea of being demoted like that. All due to the General’s envy of his military prowess and the prince’s rancour.

‘Why did the Emperor agree? Dammit!’ He snarled.

‘Because you need to be taken down a notch, Xiao Lang,’ answered an unruffled voice.

The Major turned around only to find the Emperor’s serene gaze upon him at the door. He knelt down before the elder man and bowed his head in respect as well as a bit of awkwardness.

Wei eased his way to the young man, with his hands held together by the fingertips, as he used to do when in a thoughtful mood. ‘Please, stand, son.’

Xiao Lang quickly complied and faced the elderly man who had the hint of a smile on his lips.

‘You’ve been too haughty lately for someone at such a young age. When you get to my age, you’ll find out that it’s all for nought.’

‘Why did Your Majesty allow them to demote me?’ he asked, resentfully.

‘You haven’t been demoted, Xiao Lang. You are still a Major of my Army.’

‘I’m commanding a bunch of useless men!’

‘You are commanding a hundred of my soldiers,’ remarked the Emperor.

‘I know, but…’ The Major grumbled. ‘I’m a warrior, not a teacher. I can’t lose my time teaching those men to war,’ he explained, taking a deep breath. ‘China’s being invaded! We’re losing lives, Your Majesty.’

‘I know that! Do you suppose that I don’t care about my people?’

‘I’m sorry! T-that’s not what I meant,’ he stammered, lowering his head.

Wei tried not to smile looking at that man in front of him. So young and reckless. Reminded him so much of himself at that age, when he first took on the Emperor’s mantle after his father.

‘I want you to turn my worse men into the finest of them all.’ Wei insisted, calm and patient. ‘That’s your mission and I wouldn’t trust it to any man less deserving or who I would think incapable of accomplishing it.’ The Emperor looked at the slouched young man in front of him. ‘I could send you to the battlefront to fight against the Huns, Xiao Lang, but what good would it be to have one excellent warrior? I need an Army of great warriors.’

‘I… I understand,’ the Major muttered.

Wei rested a hand on the man’s shoulder. ‘I’m confident that I’ll have China’s finest warriors under your command, soon, Major.’

Xiao Lang nodded, still feeling dejected. He had no patience for teaching. ‘I’ll do my best, Your Majesty.’

‘I’m counting on it, son.’

Wei ambled toward the door and turned around to look at the man once more. He saw Xiao Lang bow his head, respectfully, and exited the room, leaving him alone.


Sakura was standing between Yancha and another soldier named Yu Ban. Ban was as young as her, maybe younger, even, though he was slightly taller and walked around with a proud gait. Most men laughed at him for posing as a grown-up man, despite being still wet behind the ears.

The men were lined up, shoulder by shoulder, in two rows facing each other while chattering quite loudly as they waited for their Commanding Officer to show up. When the door to the barracks opened blusteringly, they immediately hushed up at the sight of the grimace on Major Li’s face. He, obviously, didn’t want to be there.

Xiao Lang strode toward his new soldiers and ran his hand through his hair, disillusioned. He could see that Xue Lian had handpicked the most unsuited and worthless men to send his way.

‘I’m Major Li Xiao Lang,’ he began as he scrutinised the men in his troop. ‘I don’t need to mention that I hate cowards and slackers, so, if any of you fit into those categories, you better pack up and go home because you’re not soldier material, especially under my command.’

The Major strode over, facing and measuring each and every soldier.

Sakura felt her blood run cold and swallowed hard when she noticed that. What if he recognised her? It’d be her end, no doubt.

‘You all should know that you’ve been considered the worst of the worst of all men to have enlisted,’ he stated, matter-of-factly. ‘And that I’ve been tasked with the unpleasant mission of turning you into real men. That being said, you’ll have no rest until I think you can fight against the Huns and win!’

The Major’s voice was cold and overbearing, causing Ban’s face to flush out of anger. He clenched his jaw, trying to hold his tongue not to disrespect their superior officer. 'Presumptuous ass...' he hissed, though Sakura could hear him quite clearly.

Li darted his way. ‘What did you say, soldier?’

‘I didn’t say nothing, Sir,’ the boy answered.

The Major smirked, looking down on him. ‘Indeed, if you had said nothing, your lips wouldn’t be moving, soldier.’

‘I said I was anxious to start, Sir.’

Xiao Lang knew he was lying, but decided to overlook it, for now. ‘What’s your name, boy?’

‘Yu Ban, Sir.’

‘I advise you to hold your tongue. Are you even old enough to be here?’

Sakura noticed that the boy was struggling not to answer to the provocation.

Xiao Lang looked away from the boy and his eyes set on Sakura, who quickly turned forward. He frowned, wondering, firstly, why there were so many kids in his unit; and, secondly, whether he hadn’t already seen that one before somewhere. He stepped ahead, watching the quivering boy.

‘And what’s your name?’

‘Kinomoto Touya.’ She roughened her voice.

The Major regarded the scrawny boy with contempt. ‘Japanese?’

‘No, Sir.’

He scowled even harder, thinking that the boy should be the offspring of one of those blasted soldiers who invaded China years before. His own father had been killed by their hand. He already felt like loathing the green-eyed boy. ‘Have we met before, soldier?’

‘No, Sir.’

Xiao Lang shook his head, assuming he probably didn’t actually know the kid, despite feeling like he had seen him before. He moved on, coming down hard on his men.

As soon as he had stepped away, Sakura sighed, feeling relieved. Her nervousness was quite palpable and she glanced toward Yancha, who remained looking straight ahead, trying to avoid the Major’s attention. She knew he had to find her interaction with Li, at least, suspicious and started to think of how she could explain travelling with the arrogant Major’s unit, but not knowing him.

As soon as Li finished laying down his rules and expectations, he directed the men back to the stables, so they could follow up by riding to camp. One of the soldiers noticed that neither Sakura nor Ban had a horse and the clever girl let the boy answer first, giving the same excuse.

So she got her own horse. It wasn’t a mighty steed like the Major’s but was a sturdy mount nonetheless. The only problem was that she didn’t know how to ride by herself. She had made her way to the palace on the back of Yancha’s horse.

She walked toward the animal, dragging her feet and opened a tight-lipped smile, looking into its eyes and reaching up to caress its head.

‘Hurry up, Kinomoto! We can’t wait all day!’  The Major snapped at her, noticing that she wouldn’t mount the horse. ‘Unless you can’t ride...’

Sakura didn’t answer, just watched Yancha as he mounted, paying close attention to every movement of the fat man. If he could do it, so could she. She lifted her leg, stepping into the stirrup and lifted herself up, sitting straight over the mount.

“It isn’t that hard!” She thought, just as the horse walked forward, causing her to lose balance and fall to the ground.

The soldiers burst into laughter, making her blood boil. She stood up, throbbing veins in her neck, and strode toward the animal, decided to mount it again. This time, however, she held tightly to the reins.

Xiao Lang and the rest of the troop watched as the little soldier tried to control the mount. It was quite clear that he actually didn’t know how to ride.

Sakura saw Ban get close to her, mounted on his own horse. ‘You need to control it by the reins, Kinomoto.’

‘I know that! I know what to do,’ she bristled, making the men laugh even harder at her short temper.

The Major closed in on the boys and sighed exasperatedly. “That’s great! Just what I needed! On top of everything else, having to babysit those brats!” He thought, pointing fingers at the two of them. ‘You and you, hurry up!’

Sakura looked at him with a flushed face. She swallowed her anger and pulled the reins, trying to better control her skittish horse.

Xiao Lang shook his head and turned away, his patience running short as he set the ride toward the camp with his men right behind him.

Sakura tried desperately to control the animal and Ban gave her some pointers, while Yancha laughed uncontrollably.

When she finally managed to rein in the horse, the troop was already a good distance ahead of her. Yancha and Ban rode beside her, instructing her on what to do. In almost no time, she’d gotten the hang of horse riding.

‘Think ya can gallop now, Kid?’ asked Yancha with a smirk.

‘Sure!’

‘Then let’s go, because the Major is eager to get rid of us!’ Ban stated, setting a ground-covering stride to reach the main troop.

Sakura did the same, despite an initial fear, controlling her horse quite easily. She couldn’t hold back a smile at the thought of what she would be able to do and learn as a man. A woman would never be allowed to mount. Maybe being a soldier wasn’t such a bad idea.

The Major looked back at the sound of horses’ hooves quickly approaching. He raised an eyebrow at the sight of the three soldiers galloping to catch up to the rest of the platoon. His eyes surveyed Kinomoto attentively, noticing that, even being unpractised at horse riding, the boy was actually doing well. The kid seemed to be a fast learner. Well, maybe it wouldn’t be so hard to teach something to those men, after all.

As soon as they reached the rest of the men, the three stragglers matched their pace with that of the troop.

‘I’m glad ya learned to ride, Kid,’ Yancha mentioned somewhat out of breath by the effort of controlling his horse.

‘It’s not that hard.’ She flashed a smile.

‘Hard will be dealing with that Major,’ Ban retorted, watching closely over Li’s back at the front as he led the men.

‘He’s strict, I think, but I heard he’s a great warrior,’ Yancha said, shrugging it off. He narrowed his eyes at Sakura for a moment. ‘I thought ya been recruited by the Major, Kid.’

Sakura shook her head, looking ahead. She had already come up with something to say about that but wasn’t sure if he was going to believe it. ‘No, I wasn’t conscripted. I had decided to enlist by myself after the recruiter went to my village.’

‘Ah! That’s why ya been walking by ya’self.’ He laughed. ‘I thought ya just drank too much.’

Sakura shrugged. ‘I wasn’t going to make it to the palace in time on foot, so I just went along.’

‘Now I see why the Major didn’t know ya.’

‘You didn’t know the men you were travelling with, Yancha?’ Ban nagged the fat man, making him frown.

‘I had no time to lose with this!’ He grumbled, defensively. ‘I used my free time to train and get ahead of the rest.’

Ban cackled at the man’s obvious lie and Sakura gave a sad smile, remembering how close the man had kept her during the whole travel to The Forbidden City.

The Major looked back, over his shoulder, scowling at the three of them, causing Ban to stop laughing and start muttering a series of insults instead.

The training site was quite far away, almost a week away from the palace. At their arrival, the men had to set the tents, both the collective as well as the individual ones, where they were going to sleep. Sakura had no idea of how to do any of that and, unwillingly, accepted help from the other soldiers, despite their teasing.

Everybody treated her and Ban as children, but, while the boy snapped at those who tried to teach him how to do something, she decided to accept all the help and learn all that she could, so that she wouldn’t need help again later. She knew that couldn’t afford to be proud, once she didn’t know how to do those things.

As soon as everything got ready, the Major ordered them to their tents. The really hard work would begin the following day.


It was still dark when Sakura was awakened by the noise outside of her tent. She sat up and rubbed her eyes, yawning. She was startled when Yancha’s head showed up at the opening of her tent to call for her.

‘Yeah, yeah. Coming.’ She grumbled, getting up and dragging her feet all the way to where the other men were waiting for their Commanding Officer to start their training.

Xiao Lang looked hopelessly at the men in front of him. They were too fat or too scrawny or too old or not old enough. Turning those men into fit soldiers would definitely be harder than he thought, and he had no illusions about it being easy at all. The first step was quite obvious. They needed to get some physical conditioning and there was only one way to do so.

‘Soldiers! Let’s run!’ He ordered, starting to run around the camp and being followed by the troop.

Sakura looked around, feeling drowsy. She was still sleepy and wanted only to drag herself back to her tent and sleep some more.

‘Wake up, Kinomoto!’ Ban yelled at her, forcing her to run after Li.

After half an hour running around the camp, Sakura was already panting, feeling her lungs burning. After an hour she fell to her knees beside Yancha, who was sweating like a pig. Li ordered the men to keep running and went to the two of them.

‘If you want to become soldiers, you better learn to overcome your limits and be persistent. Stand up and keep running!’

Sakura stood up, unwillingly, and offered her hand to Yancha, helping him up. ‘We’re going.’ She wheezed through her burning lungs.

‘Kinomoto!’ The major called them before they resumed their running. ‘You’ll run ten more laps after you’re done with the hundred.’

She widened her eyes, looking at the sardonic look on the man’s face. ‘Why?’

‘Because I said so. And because I’m your Commanding Officer. You’ll learn not to talk back.’

Sakura shot daggers at him and held back some choice words, starting to run again, followed by Yancha. As soon as the men completed their hundred laps, they fell to the ground, huffing and puffing. Many drank water desperately, trying to beat the tiredness and lack of conditioning. Sakura pressed on running, despite not being able to feel her legs anymore.

Li was by her side, running as if taking a stroll. ‘Only one lap left, Kinomoto.’

She didn’t say anything, just swallowed yet another swear, trying to save her breath and complete the damn task before the Major decided to order her to run another ten laps or something.

When the last lap was completed, she immediately fell on her knees, trying to catch her breath. For a few minutes, her insides felt as if wanting to get out through her mouth. She leant on the ground, feeling her lungs burning and her stomach ache, unusually nauseated.

Li forced her to look up, instead of the ground. ‘Keep your head raised, soldier, otherwise you’ll throw up.’

Ban approached her and offered her a waterskin, which she gladly accepted, drinking in long gulps with gusto. Her nausea still would take a while to pass, however.

After a while, the Major ordered them to stand up and led them toward the centre of the camp, where was found a tall wooden pillar.

He got two heavy metal discs tied with sturdy leather straps from a box and threw them on the ground. He took a bow and an arrow, aimed at the top of the pillar and shot, sticking it in the lumber.

‘I want you to climb to the top, carrying these weights and get me that arrow.’ Xiao Lang said, looking at the men. ‘He who can do it will be my right-hand man and second in command during training.’

Then he took a step back and pointed to the first one who would try. The one who seemed to be the strongest and fittest among the bunch of them.

The chosen man stepped ahead and set the weights on his shoulders, starting to climb the fairly slick wooden post. The Major watched as the man got almost midway to the top before sliding all the way to the ground.

Xiao Lang pointed to the one who seemed to be the second strongest man and saw the same thing happen again. He chose another and then some, but they all failed to complete the task until the only ones left were those whom he knew for sure that wouldn’t make it. The Major sat in the shadow of a nearby tree, just despondently pointing to the next one.

By the end, there were only Kinomoto, Yancha and a dozen others left. Xiao Lang scrutinised the group, noticing the meagreness and debility of the ones left. He looked at the fat man and thought that not even without the weights he could do it, and then looked at Kinomoto and smirked, thinking that the boy could hardly survive the mischief he’d done earlier.

‘I give up.’ He muttered, annoyed at his wimpy platoon. ‘You’re a bunch of weaklings.’

‘There’s only a few soldiers left, Sir.’ Said the first one who tried. ‘After them, I know that I’ll be able to bring you that arrow.’

The Major raised his eyebrows, giving a measuring look to the soldier in front of him. He really was the most probable one to accomplish the task. ‘Kinomoto, your turn.’ He commanded, without sparing a second glance toward the boy.

Sakura stepped forward and got the weights by the straps. She could hardly lift them up and looked up to the arrow with narrowed eyes. Oh, how she wished she would be the one to get it, just to see the Major’s arrogance fall to the ground and make him swallow his insults. She looked at the weights again, thinking that she would definitely fail if she tried to climb the same way everyone else did, especially being a woman. She handled the straps, looking more closely at them and smirked, getting an idea.

She tied the weights together and enlaced it around the pole, pulling it tightly to make sure it was well tied in. Some of the men got closer to look at what the odd kid was doing, but the Major just rolled his eyes, thinking the kid must have gone crazy.

So, she started to climb, inch by inch, using the friction between the leather and the pole and the strength of her legs to rise.

Once she had climbed half of it, the soldiers began to cry out cheerfully, encouraging her to reach the arrow and finally getting the Major’s full attention. Xiao Lang stepped toward the pole, with his eyes locked on the kid.

Sakura reached the top and sat on the pole. She freed her hands and pulled the arrow with all her might, throwing it down at the Major’s feet.

Xiao Lang saw the bolt sticking out of the ground and lifted his head, watching the boy with a lopsided grin. The men laughed, surprised that the kid actually had been able to fulfil the task. Yancha cried out, claiming that had he the chance, he would have reached it, as well.

‘That’s not fair, Sir. The kid used the straps to help him climb, instead of only holding the weights. He can’t do that!’ said the man who had tried to climb first, approaching the Major.

Xiao Lang turned his way, frowning. ‘The straps were there to be used as one saw fit. The kid used his wit and accomplished the task with flying colours,’ he said, looking back at the boy who smiled while catching his breath.

Sakura locked her eyes on the Major, noticing that he was watching her with a smirk on his lips. She thought that he probably couldn’t believe that she had been the one to fulfil the task after so many men tried and failed. 

‘Only imagine if he knew that I’m a girl…’ She whispered so that only the skies could hear. 

Taking a deep breath, she began her way down, hearing Yancha and the others still laughing and yelling. Once she touched the ground, many men surrounded her to congratulate her but stepped back at the Major’s approach.

‘It looks like you’ll be my right-hand man, Kinomoto,’ he said, stopping in front of her. ‘You’re not who I thought would be my second in command, but you did prove that strength alone isn’t always enough to achieve victory.’

Sakura faced him, remaining silent and, for a couple of seconds, she felt proud of herself as she never had before in her entire life. Right there she was a man, a soldier. She was finally a human being, instead of being somebody else’s doormat.

‘I’ll honour the responsibility given to me, Sir,’ she replied earnestly.

The Major grinned and turned on his heels, pointing out at some of the soldiers on lunch duty for the day.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

Sakura was standing in front of Li, badly balanced over two wooden stumps while holding a bo staff in her hands. The Major was finally about to begin the martial training of his soldiers.

‘Why can’t we fight on the ground?’ she asked, looking down.

‘You must learn to keep your balance, Kinomoto.’

‘I can do that on the ground, Sir,’ Sakura replied, looking up to see the man’s smirking face.

Xiao Lang raised his staff and saw the kid’s green eyes widening in apprehension. ‘Let’s begin, kid!’ He moved his weapon towards the boy.

Sakura closed her eyes and raised her bo, trying to block the attack. The strong hit caused her to stagger and lose her precarious balance, landing on her face.

‘Dammit.’ She bristled, trying to clean her face and ignoring the men’s laughter.

‘Climb up, already. I don’t have the whole day, soldier,’ the Major grumbled.

She felt like the Major had purposely turned her into the troop’s laughingstock just to humiliate her for being able to get that damn arrow. She stood up, still feeling her aching body, got her bo staff and climbed the stumps, trying to keep her balance.

The man attacked again and Sakura tried to hold her own against him, but could only endure a few more hits than the first time. He hit her on the legs, making her fall to the ground. She bit her lips in order not to cry out in pain. The blow had certainly left another bruise on her body. Ban got close to her and held out his hand to help her get up.

'It seems like it really was just out of luck that you caught that arrow, kid. You don’t have what it takes,' the Major sneered, watching as the kids helped each other.

Sakura felt humiliated beyond belief and moved away from Ban’s helping hand. She then stormed away from the troop, leaning against the trunk of a nearby tree in the shadow to recover from both the beating and the bruised pride.

The Major called for another soldier to go against him.

Sakura kept watching closely, scrutinising the Major’s every movement and paying attention to each and every comment about what they were doing wrong. Of course, that none lasted long against their superior officer, but some had actually held their own for a while.


That same night, after the soldiers had been ordered to their tents, Sakura found herself back at the stumps, holding a bo staff in her hands. She would learn how to fight by any means necessary. Her father was a soldier; she had the blood of a warrior in her veins.

‘What are you doing awake this late, Kinomoto?’

She almost fell from her perch at the sudden question and turned around, seeing Ban’s serious face. ‘I came to practice. I won’t stand hearing that arrogant man make fun of me anymore.’ She stated, controlling herself not to insult the Major.

Ban got one of the staves and climbed onto the stumps in front of her. ‘That makes two of us.’ He declared, raising his bo toward her. ‘Let’s show him we’re not kids anymore.’

‘Yes.’ She replied, touching her own staff against his.

They began practising, slowly, barely cracking the staves together, just learning how to stand over the stumps. Now and then, one of them would lose their balance, but the other would hold them to keep them from falling.

At a distance, a pair of amber eyes watched the scene as the two boys practised in an almost childlike manner.


Sakura woke up, feeling worn-out at the perspective of yet another wearing day. She would very much enjoy being able to stay in bed a while longer, but the Major’s punishment, if she decided to slack off, would be ten times worse than just getting up already. So, she just got up and put her uniform on. As usual, the first thing to do was run a hundred laps around the camp.

After four weeks of daily running, Sakura started to notice that her body was becoming more resilient. She could perform the whole course without stopping and without her legs going numb, even if she still ended up gasping for air.

That day they would have their first archery lesson and spent the morning forging the iron tips and putting the arrows together.

Xiao Lang was finding that he actually enjoyed teaching those men, especially once he noticed that the recruits were giving their all and heeding his orders. He had, finally, begun to understand the wise Emperor’s words. He had given him a great responsibility upon trusting those wimps under his care.

He opened a lopsided smile watching Touya and Ban assembling arrows under a cherry tree. He approached them, noticing how their hands moved swiftly and quite practised on their task after only a morning. Those two were the most stubborn amongst all of the men in his troop and, even with chafing hands, they were still pressing forward. The boys noticed his approach and stood up, respectfully.

He caught one of the arrows and watched it closely, handing it over to Touya. ‘Tie the feather tightly, Kinomoto. An arrow can’t shatter after being shot.’

Sakura shot daggers at him and clenched her jaws. Of course, the Major Almighty would come out only to find fault in their work. She grudgingly took the arrow from his hands. ‘Yes, Sir. I’ll make it better.’

Suddenly, the Major narrowed his eyes and held her wrist, looking at a burn mark that was previously hidden by her sleeve.

‘How did you get burned, soldier?’

‘I got distracted while forging the arrow tips, sir.’

‘Got distracted, my arse! Yancha bumped on him,’ replied Ban.

Sakura shot him an annoyed look. ‘It was an accident.’

‘Come with me. Let’s take care of that.’ Xiao Lang turned and marched towards the tents, not bothering to wait for her reply.

Sakura heaved a sigh, shaking her head disapprovingly at the boy for ratting on Yancha. Ban just shrugged, raising his eyebrows. Ban and Yancha were at odds at all times, always provoking each other and fighting. They were worse than kids, and Sakura usually found herself trying to break them up.

‘Kinomoto!’ She startled when the Major called her with a strict voice and ran after him. The Major got into the tent where were stored the medical supplies.

Sakura got into the tent right after him, her eyes darting around at the thought of being alone with him in there. The last time they were alone like that didn’t go too well.

Xiao Lang glanced in the boy’s direction. ‘Are you going to stand there, Kinomoto?’

‘Huh? No, sir. Sorry, sir,’ she said, with a deeper gruffness in her voice as if to prove to herself that she was a man now.

She watched as he went about for something between the many flasks till he found what he’d been looking for and turned back her way, motioning her to show him the injured arm. Sakura pulled up her uniform sleeve, showing him the burning. Truth be told, it didn’t even hurt anymore.

‘It’s quite deep. I’ll reproach Yancha about it. He can’t cause accidents like that on camp,’ he muttered harshly. ‘And you should be more attentive. Arrows won’t come your way screaming your name on the battlefield.’

Sakura felt a sharp sting in her arm as he applied the medicine on and controlled herself not to pull her arm back or curse. ‘Arrows don’t speak,’ she hissed through clenched teeth.

‘Thankfully, you know that at least, kid,’ he quipped, bandaging her arm. ‘Change the bandage and apply the medicine twice a day.’ He gave her a small flask filled with a yellow slime.

She took the medicine flask and nodded, ready to leave when he spoke again.

‘Do you think you’re ready to go against me in a bo staff fight, soldier?’

She turned his way with wide eyes. ‘I-I don’t know, Sir.’

‘Then let’s find out.’ He motioned with his head for her to follow him.

Sakura took a deep breath and followed him. Ban and she had been practising every night and she was really getting the hang of it. It wasn’t as hard as it seemed at first. The secret was dodging from the adversary’s hits, as well as using the staff to attack, defend and keep the balance.

Sakura saw the Major get two staves and throw one of them in her direction, which she caught easily. She set the medicine flask on the ground, watching as the man climbed on the wooden stumps and looked her way with that annoying smug smile on his face she had gotten so familiar with in the last month. She sighed and climbed the stumps, facing her commanding officer.

‘I’ve noticed that you got better at this, Kinomoto,’ he mentioned nonchalantly.

She widened her eyes. ‘Have you been watching Ban and I practise, Sir?’

‘The two of you make too much noise.’

‘Forgive us...’ she began, seeing his staff move in her direction without any warning and barely being able to evade it. She almost fell from the stumps but was able to keep her balance at the last second by raising one of her legs in a totally ridiculous and crude way.

The Major smirked. ‘I don’t suppose you knew about surprise attacks.’

‘I do now, Sir,’ she answered with clenched teeth, getting ready to fight.

The Major raised his staff and stroke against her again, but this time, Sakura was ready for it and endured the hit without being too much shaken. The longer she remained over the stumps, the more her confidence grew and she, gradually, started to dare a few attacks against the man. It wasn’t a fight solely based on strength, but on balance, resistance and strategy.

The clumsy, weak, unskilled kid she had been gave way, little by little, to an excellent strategist who began to control the tempo of the practice using the fact that the Major was underestimating her. She set him up with a dozen small openings, which she easily defended, and presented him with an irresistible gap in her defence which he took, as she knew he would, and was prepared for. Once he attacked her, she ducked and hit him with a powerful blow on his legs, making him lose his balance. He would fall from the stumps if she hadn’t held him by his wrist like she was used to doing while practising with Ban.

Xiao Lang looked at the hand around his wrist and then glared at the boy. ‘I don’t need your help, Kinomoto.’

Sakura felt her body shaking and let go of his wrist. Luckily, there was no one around them to see that, since everyone else was busy with the making of the arrows and targets. ‘I know that, Sir. I’m sorry. It was involuntary,’ she muttered, avoiding his eyes.

Xiao Lang jumped down from his perch and watched as Kinomoto did the same. It was weird to see how a young boy could be so resolute and intelligent. He had already noticed that the kid, unlike most of the men on the troop, didn’t try to bludgeon his way through the tasks he’d assigned, but used his sagacity, instead. Just now, he took advantage of an opening in his defence and came close to winning the match.

“No, not "came close to". The kid actually did win.” The Major thought with a bruised ego, but somewhat proud at the same time.

‘Where are you from, kid?’ he inquired.

Sakura looked his way and blinked a few times, furrowing her brows at the question. ‘From a village south, Sir,’ she said, taking the medicine flask from the ground.

‘The south of China got invaded by Japanese soldiers a few years ago.’

‘That’s right, Sir,’ she said quietly.

‘About fifteen years ago… I was fourteen, then... when my father got killed fighting them,’ he mentioned, throwing his bo over a pile.

Sakura felt a tight grip in her chest, finally understanding why the Major was so unfriendly toward her and seemed to take pleasure in humiliating her. So, his father died at the end of a Japanese sword. She swallowed hard, not knowing what she could say to him and just watched as he kept his back on her, looking to the forest that surrounded the camp. At that moment he didn’t seem so high and mighty as he usually did, being just a man, instead.

He turned around, facing her. ‘You are the son of a Japanese soldier, aren’t you?’

She just nodded, holding tightly to the flask in her hands.

Li smirked, but, for the first time, she noticed that the taunting which coloured his manners was absent and he actually looked quite sad. ‘Now I understand why my father died at the sword of a Japanese. You can be quite persistent.’

‘I am not Japanese, Sir. I’m a soldier of the Chinese Imperial Army.’ She looked him straight in the eyes, trying not to make it into a challenge.

‘Yes, you’re right.’ He replied with the trace of a smile on his face and patted her on the back, walking away.

Sakura watched as he walked off and the sight of his large shoulders sent a shiver up her spine. She looked away from his withdrawing figure and furrowed her brow staring at the bandage on her arm.


Sakura tried to hit the centre of the target, but no matter how many times she shot the damn arrow, it never hit the mark she was aiming for. She scowled, drawing the weight on the string, reminding the lecture she got from the Major on the first day because she hadn’t even known how to hold the bow.

“But of course I didn’t know how to hold it! I never held a bow before, because you men are too scared to even allow women to look you in the eyes. Heavens forbid a woman should handle a weapon…” She thought, gritting her teeth and imagining Li’s sarcastic face at the centre of the target, before releasing the arrow.

It nailed to the left and up of where she was aiming at. She snorted with derision and looked at Ban beside her, hitting the mark with every single shot.

‘I give up,’ she said, feeling like snapping the bow in half.

‘You need to relax your shoulders. It’s no use being tense,’ Ban said, stretching his back with a self-satisfied grin on his face.

‘Says the know-it-all,’ Yancha grunted, in a worse situation than Sakura.

‘I know it better than you, Pig.’

‘Are you two going to fight again? The Major have already punished you the other day. Do you want to be sent to clean the latrines again? Because I don’t! And whenever you fight, I'm always punished along, somehow,’ Sakura complained.

‘Who cleaned the latrines was just the two of us because this fat pig hardly fit into the cabin.’

‘Ya cleaned it ‘cause ya is already used to deal with shit.’

Ban threw his bow on the ground and drew nearer to Yancha, stomping his feet. ‘You’re the one who’s nothing but a bag of shit!’

‘Oy, ya little imp!’ Fuming, Yancha jumped on the kid.

They got into a fight, throwing punches and kicks around while Sakura and a few others tried to break them apart, to no avail.

They were lucky that the Major had left the camp a few hours ago to scout the area for a bear that had been invading their food storages, or else, they’d have undoubtedly be sent to latrine duty, again.

Ban already had a black eye and Yancha got a bloody nose and, still, no one seemed to find a way to make them stop.

‘The Major!’ Sakura yelled, at last, pointing towards the camp. The pair finally broke apart, cowering in fear.

When nothing happened, they stood up and looked in the direction she had pointed, furrowing their brows in confusion.

‘Just kidding.’ Sakura smirked, watching their reactions closely.

Both of them growled angrily at her.

‘Oy, ya liar!’ Yancha grunted, still out of breath from the fight, starting to run towards the kid.

She dodged him easily and kept running, easily staying out of his reach. After all those weeks running around the camp, she was in top condition. She climbed a tree, escaping Yancha’s desperate grab at her.

‘Ha! You can’t catch me now, Yancha.’

‘Get off that tree and face us like a man, Kinomoto!’ Ban demanded.

She smirked, seeing the two hot-headed men teaming up to come after her now. Boys were such simpletons.

A distant and muffled sound drew her attention away from the men on the ground. She narrowed her eyes, looking towards the snow covered mountain ahead, trying to find the source of the noise.

She tuned out the callings and yelling coming from below her and climbed higher. What she saw sent her heart racing, her throat closing in fear. The sight seemed simply unbelievable, but no matter how many times she rubbed her eyes to wake herself from the fevered vision, it wouldn’t go away.

‘Huns!’ she muttered, watching as a platoon of them -- probably a hundred men or more -- walked through the mountain passing toward the heart of China.

Sakura climbed down the tree, almost falling to the ground a few times in her hurry. When she touched the ground, Yancha and Ban tried to get her to settle their differences over the lie she’d told, but she easily evaded them and ran towards the camp. She needed to find the Major quickly.

She kept running, desperately trying to find him. When she couldn’t find him in the camp, she ran in the direction the search party had gone and saw them coming back, carrying the food burglar’s carcass with them. She cast a sympathising look at the bear, thinking that, just like herself, it was just trying to survive.

‘Why aren’t you training with the others, Kinomoto?’ the Major asked, with his trademark bad-temper.

Sakura looked away from the dead beast and met the man’s amber eyes. ‘I need to talk to you, Sir. It’s important.’

The Major narrowed his eyes at the kid’s serious demeanour, but the other men laughed at his sense of urgency.

‘What happened, Kinomoto? Did you pee in your pants?’ joked a soldier who had hated her since the first day of training because she had been the one to retrieve the arrow from the pole.

‘I’m not a cry-baby like you, Pu, who keeps belly-aching at the corners.’

‘Why, you idiotic whelp!’ Pu said, jumping over Sakura, who just dodged the attack and, with a spin, kicked him on the back, making him eat dirt.

Xiao Lang felt in awe, seeing the boy perform, flawlessly, the fighting movement he’d only taught the troop the previous week. He smirked at the kid’s quick-thinking. Despite his low stature, Kinomoto was fast and nimble and knew how to turn to his favour what many saw as a disadvantage.

When Pu got up, ready to charge again, sizzling in anger, Xiao Lang ordered him to stop and turned to Kinomoto who was in a defensive form. ‘What was so important, soldier?’

She hesitantly let her guard down, still looking at Pu until she knew for certain that he wouldn’t try to hit her again. Then turned to the Major and took a deep breath. ‘The Huns, Sir. They’re crossing the mount at East, toward the Emperor’s Palace.’

Li widened his eyes as the men started babbling around them and didn’t seem like shutting up. He had to shout so that they would hush. ‘Are you sure?’

She nodded, dead-serious. ‘I saw them, Sir!’

‘The whelp is going crazy, Sir.’ Pu claimed, despiteful.

‘I’m not lying, Sir.’

He shook his head, furrowing his brow. ‘Why would they use the passing at Mount Fuy? This time of year, it’s entirely covered with snow. It’s the worst possible way. A treacherous way.’

‘Which makes it the best way, doesn’t it? There’s the surprise element because no one expects them to attack from there and they’d have a privileged view of The Forbidden City, being able to trace the guard’s patrol,’ Sakura reasoned, staring at the Major.

‘You’re right. It is a perfect strategy,’ Xiao Lang muttered, trying to come up with a counter-strategy. ‘How many days ahead of us are they?’

‘Uhm… I’m not sure, Sir. I think they’re one day ahead.’

‘I’ll get my eyeglass and you can show me where you saw them.’

Sakura nodded and Li ran to his tent and came out a second later. She guided him toward the tree she had climbed before. She climbed on it and reached out to him so that he could climb along. They carefully reached the top and she pointed at the mountain pass.

Xiao Lang felt his mouth go dry at the red dots covering the white terrain of the mountain ahead of them.

‘Blasted Huns!’ he growled, watching them through his eyeglass. ‘They’re really just one day ahead. You’re good with precision.’

She shrugged. ‘It was really a guess, actually.’

‘Have you ever used something like this?’ he asked, offering the eyeglass to the kid who shook his head with wide eyes. ‘Try it,’ he encouraged her.

Sakura bit her lower lip and took the apparatus from his hand, looking at the Major. ‘Just do what you did?’

He nodded, pointing to the narrower side. ‘Close one eye, keep the other open to see through it.’

She took a breath and turned on the direction of the Huns, placing the eyeglass over her right eye as she closed the left. She widened her eyes and almost fell from the tree at seeing them so closely.

Xiao Lang held the kid by the uniform and laughed nervously at what had almost happened.

She gripped the branch of the tree tightly and looked through the apparatus again, furrowing her brow and chewing her lip, carefully scrutinising their enemies.

‘Sir, did you notice the carts they’re pushing?’ she inquired, giving the eyeglass back to him.

Xiao Lang took it and brought it up to peer through the glass again. He focused on the covered two-wheelers. ‘Yes, what are those? Catapults?’

Sakura shook her head. ‘I don’t think so. They’re being too careful with it. Catapults wouldn’t require so much caution.’

‘Mortars…’ he gulped, feeling the sense of urgency increasing rapidly.

‘You’re probably right. They can hit the Palace from a high ground and then charge by land.’

‘Dammit!’ he growled, climbing down the tree. ‘Let’s go, Kinomoto. We have no time to lose.’

Sakura descended right after him. The Major was visibly agitated, probably knowing that, as she’d imagined, the Palace would be mostly unguarded by the Mountain Passing. After all, who could imagine that the Huns would try such a bold move?

‘Soldiers, prepare yourselves to battle! Training is over!’ the Major ordered as he got to the ground.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

Sakura put on her new armour, feeling her heart slamming against her chest the entire time. This would be her first time wearing it in combat. Two months ago, she’d never have imagined being in this place or situation. When she took her sword from the corner of the tent, she was suddenly reminded of the first time she ever held such a weapon. Heaving a sigh, she ran her hands through her short and damaged hair, thinking that it little resembled her former long and lustrous tresses. Looking at the calluses on her hands, she sneered, thinking that no man would actually marry her now.

She heard the horn sound outside, announcing that it was time to move. The Major didn’t allow them to disarm the encampment, giving them only enough time to assemble their weapons and armours and catching some shut-eye before departing at dawn. They had to run if they intended to reach the Huns in time to protect the Emperor.

After taking a deep breath, Sakura left her tent and walked toward the soldiers assembled near the horses.

Li was standing in front of all the men, wearing his silver armour with an encrusted wolf pattern on the chest. When he saw Touya join the others, he gestured his way, calling the boy to stand at his side.

‘Our enemies are pressing toward the Emperor’s Palace through the mountains,’ he shouted, pointing towards the snow covered peaks behind them. ‘The Forbidden City is vulnerable on the North Wing this time of year, for only madmen would dare to defy the wrath of Mount Fuy in the heart of Winter. Madness aside, the Huns’ strategy is sound and, if they survive the snow covered crossing, our emperor’s life will be at risk.’ The men remained silent, listening to what their superior officer had to say. 'Your training has been cut short, men. I don’t believe that you’re entirely ready to face the Huns yet, but we might be China’s last line of defence. Fight smart and remember all that I taught you for the last two months!’

The Major mounted his stallion and ordered his troop to do the same. They’d have long days, with practically no rest, ahead of them.

‘Kinomoto!’ he called to the boy. ‘You’ll ride on my right side.’

Sakura acknowledged the order and mounted with ease, regardless of her heavy armour, guiding her horse to stride beside the Major’s.

They rode with little rest. They stopped only enough to feed and give some water to the mounts, moving at a moderate pace so that the horses wouldn’t be overworked. Unfortunately, they were travelling during a New Moon, so riding through the night was unfeasible. That meant the soldiers only rested once the sun had completely set and it became too dark to see their surroundings. At first light, they were back on their horses trying to reach the Huns.

The Major decided that, instead of trying to follow the same path the Huns were taking, the best course of action would be to take the Summer Pilgrimage passage to The Forbidden City, and accessing the mountain partway. The only problem with that plan was that the pilgrimage pass was too steep for the horses and they would have to proceed on foot once they got there.

When they reached the intended passage, the soldiers dismounted, leaving their horses with the horsemaster and his stablemen with orders to go back to The Forbidden City.

They travelled lightly, taking with them only what they could carry: their armours and swords, a bow and quiver, some food, waterskin and a blanket. They immediately began climbing Mount Fuy, trudging the snow covered footpath as fast as they could. During the Summer, that was a two-days crossing. There was no telling how long it would take with all that snow to delay them.

Sakura found out that being lighter than the others had its advantages when it made easier for her to keep moving on the increasingly deeper snow. It allowed her to remain beside the Major at the front.

‘Do you think they’re close to the palace by now?’ Xiao Lang asked at some point.

Sakura thought about it for a moment. ‘They’re carrying mortars. It’s a powerful weapon, but it’s still fragile and can easily blow up if not handled carefully. Even though they had a head start on us, they’re still advancing slowly.’

The Major suddenly stopped, turning to face the shorter boy. ‘Where’d you learned about that, soldier?’

Sakura frowned at the question. ‘You taught us, Sir.’

‘I taught you about mortars, though many of you had fallen asleep during the lessons; I never taught you about military strategy.’

Sakura tilted her head with narrowed eyes. ‘Hm… What do you mean by that, Sir?’

The man smirked and shook his head, moving on again. That kid had no idea just how smart he was. ‘Nothing, boy. Let’s go already.’

Two days of climbing had made it so that the men could hardly feel their legs. Despite being tired and cold, the soldiers’ will didn’t wither.

They still remembered the Emperor’s inflamed words at the gathering two months ago about the atrocities committed by the invaders. They still remembered the Major’s dismissive words about their capacities. The men in their troop had been considered worthless. Well, this was their chance to prove their worth. Slowly, but surely, they were conquering that white Giant in order to protect their Emperor and their land.

Xiao Lang was proud at the sight of those men, who had been considered wimps, bravely fighting the elements of Nature in order to face terrible enemies.

He quietly murmured a protection mantra that his instructors had taught him many years ago when he first became a soldier. They would require every bit of luck they could muster. And it definitely wouldn’t hurt to ask for the protection of his honourable ancestors, in order to defeat an army that not only outnumbered them but was also more experienced.

When the soldiers stopped to rest at the top of a mountain slope, Sakura got near a tree and stripped off her blanket and the heavier parts of her equipment. She climbed a tree nearby, searching for the whereabouts of the enemies. They should be close by now.

Xiao Lang narrowed his eyes watching the stubborn shivering boy climb higher and higher in search of the Huns. A chilly wind ran by him, making him shudder and rub his hands together to warm himself. He caught a movement in the corner of his eyes and looked towards Kinomoto who came down, almost falling to the ground. It seemed like the cold had finally caught to the boy, but instead of getting his armour and blanket back, the soldier ran in his direction with shallow rapid breathing.

‘The Huns are really close to the Palace now. We have to hurry!’

The Major widened his eyes and turned to his platoon. ‘There’s no time to rest, men. Get ready to move!’

Sakura went back to where she had left her things and went about redressing her armour with some difficulty due to the hurry.

Yancha got close to her, trying to help. ‘How many men, Kid?’

Sakura wrapped herself with the blanket and looked at Yancha, considering whether or not she should tell him the truth. ‘I’d say they’re at least two hundred, Yancha.’

The fat man hunched, deflated. ‘They’ve got the advantage…’

Sakura rested a hand on his arm. ‘Trust Major Li, Yancha, and trust yourself. If the Major brought us here, it’s because he believes we can beat them.’

‘I-I’m no warrior, Kid.’

‘Maybe you weren’t before, but you are now and you’ll help defend your land beside every single man here. Believe in yourself, Yancha! A man who refuses to face challenges isn’t a man at all, but a coward. And that’s something the mighty Yancha isn’t.’ She grinned at him, making Yancha lift his head and push his chest out.

She smiled at him and went back to her place, beside the Major.

‘Alright.’ Xiao Lang looked at the boy. ‘Tell me the details of what you saw.’

‘They’re only a few meters ahead of us. I’d say five hundred meters, tops. They’re set about half of the way downhill.’

‘Did you see their weapons?’

‘Their main artillery is the mortars and they’re already set, aimed at the Palace. I believe they’ll charge as soon as the Sun sets. It’s what I’d do.’

‘Dammit.’ He grunted. ‘We need to disarm them first.’

She nodded. ‘And warn the Palace Watch that the enemies are going to charge from here. That way, if we fail, they’ll be ready.’

‘We can’t fail, Kinomoto.’ Xiao Lang hissed.

‘I’m not looking forward to that outcome either, sir, but we can’t rely solely on luck. The Emperor’s safety must come first.’

‘You’re right. I apologise.’

Sakura widened her eyes at hearing him say that. Was he actually apologising to her?

The Major didn’t seem to take notice of what he had said, just turned to his men, who were standing waiting for orders and got closer to them with Sakura tailing him.

Xiao Lang used his sword to draw the field and talk about the action plan.

‘The Huns are here…’ He began explaining. ‘The Emperor’s at the base of Mount Fuy. The Forbidden City’s troops are stationed here and here. The mountainside only counts with the standard patrol, and they have no idea the enemies will charge from above. They’ve been so careless that the Huns were able to set the mortars without being noticed.’

‘They have ten mortars set here, here and here.’ Sakura drew her sword and pointed at the draft. ‘They’re aiming toward the main palace, the barracks and the main gate. As soon as they fire, they’ll probably go down the slope of the mountain and press a straight attack against the Emperor.’

The men listened attentively to what the boy was saying while the Major stared at the rough map, tilting his head, just slightly, and pressed his lips together.

‘We’re a hundred strong. Let’s split up into two units and flank them from both sides and…’

Sakura interrupted him. ‘Sir, we should probably disarm the mortars as soon as possible.’ She suggested. ‘Or else the Huns might fire at us.’

‘Good point.’

‘Maybe a team of five could sneak on their camp and disable the mortars.’

Xiao Lang watched the map drawn in the snow, furrowing his brows. ‘You’re right, Kinomoto. Here’s what we’ll do: Two units of forty-five will charge from both flanks to draw their attention away from the mortars.’ He explained, drawing the troop’s intended movements. ‘Ten men will stay behind, five to disarm the mortars and five to shadow them.’

‘We could fire a mortar to the sky to draw the city’s soldiers' attention.’

‘Well thought. You’re in charge of the disarming team, Kinomoto.’

Sakura gazed at him, wide-eyed, but acknowledged.

‘If you fail, the Emperor will be vulnerable, boy, so you better know what you’re doing,’ he told her in a grave tone. ‘Pu, you’re in charge of the right flank unit, I’ll lead the men who’ll charge from the left. I’ll split the men up. Kinomoto!’

‘Yes, Sir?’

‘Choose nine men to go with you.’

‘It’d have to be the fastest ones, Sir.’

Xiao Lang appointed the ones he knew to be the fastest – Ban was among them. Then he divided the others into two groups of forty-five.

With the units divided, they worked on a few more details of their plan, before moving down. It would take them a few hours before reaching the Huns’ camp through the rocky path, and they had no time to lose.


Sakura and her nine companions moved downhill with relative ease, taking cover behind a huge rock, the closest to where the mortars were armed. She was shivering and, if she were entirely honest, it wasn’t only out of cold.

The disarming team was supposed to wait for the two units to position themselves and commence the attack so that they could move and work on disabling the mortars.

Once the Major and Pu had positioned their men on a slightly higher ground from both sides, they’d use their bows and arrows to let off a couple of volleys over the Huns, before charging with their swords.

She tightened the grip on the hilt of her sword, thinking about what she was doing there, where she had ended up.  It was crazy that she was about to fight in a war! For most of her life, her main concern had been whether or not she would ever get married. And, if so, whether or not her husband would be a good man who liked her and treated her well. Now she only could think about getting out of there alive.

Sakura felt a shiver down her spine. She was afraid of dying and couldn’t deny it. Her only consolation was to think that, at least, if she were to die there, she’d die as a man, as a soldier, fighting, instead of as an indigent woman wandering around the streets of Shanghai.

‘We’ll be victorious, Kinomoto. Our Emperor is counting on us.’ Ban suddenly said to her, taking her out of her reverie.

‘I know that, Ban. Do you know what to do?’

Ban nodded and remained in silence for a couple of heartbeats, looking at his companion. ‘It’s your first battle, isn’t it?’

She heaved a sigh. ‘You know it is.’

‘Are you scared?’

‘I am.’ She admitted.

There was no point trying to deny it when she couldn’t stop shaking. Sakura looked at the young man with a rueful smile. He was too proud and didn’t want to admit it, but she could see that he was scared, as well.

He took a deep breath and rested his forehead on the stone where they were taking cover. ‘Me, too. If I die here, Kinomoto, I want my father to know that I died fighting.’

‘You won’t die, Ban. Neither will I. We’re not going to die.’

He raised his eyes and tried to smile. ‘We’re the youngest of the troop. Everybody thought that we wouldn’t even survive the training, but here we are.’

‘Yes, and we’ll be fighting beside them.’

The boy nodded again and they went back to waiting for the Major’s signal.

She saw when arrows started pouring down from the left side of the camp, taking down a few Huns and wounding a couple of others. Just seconds later, the same happened from the right side. The Huns immediately split the bulk of their forces in two, heading toward the archers' direction.

'Alright, men.’ She turned to her team. ‘You know what to do. Get ready to move as soon as the volleys stop.'

She drew her sword and focused on the battlefield in front of her. Not two minutes later, the rain of arrows ceased, leaving dozens of enemies dead and a couple more incapacitated. Sakura felt her breath catch when she saw the Major lead his unit in a melee attack against the Huns. She quickly shook her head and, when Pu’s unit charged, she pointed her sword to their targets.

'Let's move!' She ordered, getting out of cover and moving toward one of the mortars.

Ban, who was also in charge of disabling the mortars, pulled apart from her with his keeper right behind him. The soldier who was backing her up was named Mui. He was a quiet one, having been a monk before joining the army. Despite his height and broad build, he was extremely nimble.

Sakura ran as fast as she could to reach the mortars, trying to avoid drawing the enemy's attention. Midway, however, she made the mistake of looking over the battle being fought a few meters away, which caused her body to come to an involuntary halt as her blood went cold in view of the bloodbath staining the white snow. She felt a fluttering, churning sensation in her stomach and her mind and body went completely numb as she fought against the instinct of running away in tears.

She was brought back to reality by a deep groan, followed by a thump as the ground shook in front of her. Sakura widened her eyes, watching a fallen Hun on the ground. She felt something hot, viscous, with a well-known metallic taste, splashing all over her face. She hadn’t even realised that she had come down to her knees.

‘What happened, Kinomoto?’ Mui inquired, already striking another opponent down.

Sakura tried to control her shallow, rapid breathing and get her head to work properly again, but there were so many screams of pain and despair going on around that she didn’t know what to do.

She suddenly felt Mui jolt her by her arm, forcing her to her feet. ‘The Major trusts you, Kid! Don’t let him down!’

Sakura narrowed her eyes when the man brought the Major up. It was true that he had been listening to what she had to say for the past few days, but she didn’t really think he trusted her.

He didn’t even believe in her capacity. She wouldn’t be surprised if he had sent her with the disarming team because he thought she would get in the way of the two main units.

She stood up, pushing Mui’s hand aside, gripping tightly to her sword. She refused to let all those discrediting things the Major ever said about her to be proven true. She, a woman, would save the Emperor’s life and prove everyone that she was a worthy warrior.

Sakura took a deep breath and wielded her sword, focusing on a Hun who was drawing near her, waving an axe. She ducked, rolling to the side and using the enemy’s momentum to get him out of balance with a kick in his legs, which gave Mui the opportunity to easily kill him. Looking around, she narrowed her eyes on the mortars again, getting her head back on her duty.

‘Let’s go, Mui,' she said, running toward her target.

Sakura slid under one of the carts, leaving her sword on the ground. She undressed her gloves, pulling them out with her teeth, before starting to work on disabling the trigger mechanism of the mortars. Her fingers worked as fast as they could. She hoped that everyone else succeeded in disarming their two mortars without a problem. In a way, she got the easy part of the job, as she only had to disarm one and fire the other to warn the Palace Guards.

‘Now to the other.’ She muttered to herself, once she heard the clicking sound of the trigger being disabled.

Out of pure reflex, she rolled to the side, dodging a Hun soldier’s sword, and, while getting up, kicked him in his nether parts. The big man folded himself in pain, getting cross-eyed, before being pierced by Mui’s sword.

Mui looked at her. ‘Got it?’

‘Yes.’ She nodded and took her sword from the ground, turning to another mortar. 'Let’s light some fireworks to the Emperor.’

Without delay, she instructed Mui to help her move the cart that supported the mortar and aim it toward the sky, so that it wouldn’t hit the Palace, and fired it. The violent explosion caused the cart to recoil, almost taking her down. The blast was loud enough to be overheard by everyone, especially the Imperial Army in The Forbidden City, who had been unaware of the terrible fighting going on there.

With some satisfaction, Sakura noticed the Guards moving around at the Citadel. However, she was consumed by a sense of urgency at the sight of the Huns running down the slope of the Mountain to engage the Palace Soldiers directly.

She turned around to look for the Major but felt her body freeze as her wide eyes caught a glimpse of a familiar body being stomped by the Huns close to one of the carts.

‘Ban…’ she whispered, her vision blurring, taking off to where the boy had fallen, completely dismissing Mui’s warning not to get too far away from him.

She knelt down beside her friend’s broken body, cushioning his head on her lap. ‘No, Ban, please, don’t die. Please,’ she sobbed, forgetting to harden her voice.

Ban opened his eyes, listening to the delicate voice talking to him. ‘Kin… Kinomoto…’ He gagged, spitting blood.

She rubbed his face, trying to clean the blood on it and tilted his head, so that he wouldn’t choke on his own blood.

‘We’re gonna get out of this, Ban. You and me. We’re gonna…’ she reassured him, trying to believe in it herself.

‘I’m gonna die…’ he choked, applying pressure with both his hands over a huge gash on his waist. ‘I disarmed the mortars, Kinomoto.’

Sakura placed one of her hands over his, hopelessly trying to stop the bleeding. ‘I know. You saved the Emperor, Ban. You’re a hero.’

‘When we go back… Do you think the Emperor…’ Ban coughed and gurgled. ‘...You think he’ll grant us big honours?’

‘I’m sure he will! And your father will be so proud of you.’ Sakura stared at his pale face and glassy eyes, catching the hint of a smile on his lips.

‘You’re a girl…’ he stated, holding her hand. ‘Now I know that…’ He flashed her a smile. ‘I’m glad you’re a girl.’

‘Yes, I am.’ She tried to smile at him. ‘But you mustn’t tell anyone.’

‘Your secret… It’s safe with me, Kinomoto. It’s… It’s gonna die… die with me…’ He raised his hand, touching her face to dry the tears that rolled unchecked down her cheek. ‘Tell my father… tell him…’ He would never finish that sentence, as his eyes went still and light slowly ebbed from them.

Sakura felt her body shaking with sobs, as she leant forward, hugging her friend’s lifeless body. She couldn’t help crying. She couldn’t keep pretending that she was a man, now; so she just remained there, as if lulling him to sleep for a countless time.

In some dark corner of her mind, a sense of guilt constricted her heart. It was all her fault that he was now dead in her arms. If she hadn’t sighted the enemies from that damn tree, the Major wouldn’t have ordered them to take on that suicide mission and Ban would still be alive. He’d be laughing and making fun of her for not being able to hit the damn target during the archery lessons. Or he’d be training with her to become great soldiers – the best yet; just to make the Major and every soldier who ever doubted them to take their words back.

Instead… he was only a corpse, now; a corpse that she hugged as if doing that could prevent his soul to cross to the other world.

‘Move, Kinomoto!’ She heard the Major’s harsh voice, feeling herself being torn apart from her friend’s dead body. ‘What are you doing? Are you crazy?’ She saw his angered face when he pulled her to stand. ‘He’s dead! And you’ll end up the same if you stay there like an idiot!’

Sakura felt like yelling at him and saying that it was all his fault, but she couldn’t even find her own voice. She rubbed her eyes, further smearing the blood on her face.

Xiao Lang turned around, dodging the attack of two more enemies who tried to kill him.

A third Hun approached Sakura, laughing at the sight of the crying little soldier. He kicked Ban’s body as if it were a bag of shit and guffawed.

‘Die, you sick bastard!’ she roared at the beastly enemy.

The Hun charged, wielding his sword, but Sakura was able to skid past him with only a scratch on her armour. She jumped back, rolling down and out of her adversary’s reach to recover her sword from the ground next to Ban and got into position to fight for her life.

She knew that the man in front of her was stronger, but she was much faster. Plus, his sword was a lot heavier to wield and whenever he attacked, the momentum of the strike opened his defence. Sakura lunged at the Hun, using her sword and flexibility to deflect the angered attacks.

She took advantage of every single opening he gave her, hitting him with her blade and potent kicks on the legs and arms while dodging. With a vicious strike, she chopped off the hand holding the weapon. 

The Hun bellowed in agony. It didn’t take long before he was on his knees in front of her, with a severed leg as well. 

She was furious, but also strangely clear-minded as she stared the enemy in the eyes. She couldn’t help but think that, maybe, she had finally lost her mind when, with a swift movement, she detached his head from his shoulder, giving him a quick death.

At that moment, the beautiful Flower of China had finally turned into the soldier: Kinomoto Touya.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

The sharp blade had pierced the Hun in front of Sakura. She kicked the dead burly man away from her, releasing her sword from his body with a laboured breathing. That last one had been stubborn to die. She could feel the warm blood oozing from a cut on her arm, making it hard to hold her increasingly slippery weapon.

She looked around, taking notice of many familiar faces among the dead on the ground. Looking toward the palace, she saw the remaining Huns going down the slope, in a desperate move to engage the Imperial Army within the city.

‘Major!’ she called, looking for him and found the man taking out yet another enemy.

He moved in on her, out of breath, and watched at the red dots who stumbled downhill in despair.

‘Do you think the City Guard can handle them?’

‘I don’t know…’ he said, uncertain.

Xiao Lang didn’t like the idea of leaving the Emperor’s safety in Xue Lian’s arrogant hands. He looked back to his troop, noticing that all Huns had gone down to the palace. His men were in deplorable conditions but stood proudly.

'Pu!' He turned to the other soldier. ‘Take care of the wounded! Kinomoto and I are going down after the Huns.’

Sakura looked his way in wide-eyed shock. ‘And just how do you suggest we do that? It’s too damn steep! They’re crazy for even trying!’

‘What? Are you scared?’ He smirked at her, raising one eyebrow.

She pressed her lips together in annoyance and moved close to a gig, taking apart the mortar on top of it. She pushed the cart to the edge and turned to the Major. ‘If we’re gonna do that, then we have to hurry.’

‘That’s why I like you, kid!’ Xiao Lang jumped into the cart and held out his hand.

Once she took his hand, he pulled her into the cart and instructed his men to push them down. Pu and another soldier tried to dissuade him, to no avail. The Major ordered them again.

Sakura held tight to the cart’s rim and felt her blood freeze in her veins at the sight of the hillside, suddenly regretting her suicidal idea.

‘Hum… Sir? I think they’re right. It’s too hi…’ Her voice was swallowed by the high speed of the descent and she widened her eyes as the scenery turned into a blur.

The cold and cutting wind hit her face, freezing the sweat and blood on her skin. Sakura tried to hold on, feeling the jolting of the descent and bumping on a dozen Huns along the way. All of a sudden, she was shoved off the cart and fell onto the soft snow.

Xiao Lang fell on top of the little soldier, quickly getting to his feet. The vehicle crashed into the wall with a thunderous bang, causing no damage to the advanced Chinese architectural structure.

Sakura got up. Each and every muscle in her body ached. She was undoubtedly more hurt than she thought. She looked toward the Major who was watching the Huns as they came down the slope. Some of the enemies slipped, plummeting down the mountainside. Using the cart, they got there a moment before the Huns.

‘Dammit!’ The Major grumbled, noticing that the City Guard still wasn’t at the site. ‘General Xue’s men are really useless!’

Sakura didn’t even hear. She was petrified at the sight of the more than fifty men charging their way.

‘Kinomoto…’ He beckoned the soldier by his side without even looking at him.

‘Yes, Sir?’

‘Now you’ll have to show what you are made of. It’s just the two of us against the lot of them.’

‘Oh, no! No way I’m fighting all of them! It’s suicide!’

Xiao Lang took a step back with his eyes wide open staring at Kinomoto.

‘I’m gonna run and jump over that wall! You can stay here and play the hero if you like, but I ain’t gonna die here!’

‘Coward…’ he muttered with clenched teeth.

‘It’s two against over fifty!’ she pointed out, trying to put some good sense into his head. ‘We won’t stand a chance!’

‘I never ran away from a battle, soldier,’ Xiao Lang said, turning to face the enemies again.

‘Well, I’m surprised you’re still alive, then! Sometimes a strategic retreat is the best way to fight, Major!’ She turned around to run but stopped at catching sight of the crashed cart near the wall. ‘A cannon! Thank the gods!’

She ran toward the explosive device that powered the mortars and quickly aimed it to the mountain. She didn’t have time for finesse.

The Major took a sidelong look at the soldier, seeing him position the blasting projectile and moved closer to see what he was doing.

‘How long till they get here?’ Sakura asked without taking her eyes from her target.

‘Two minutes, tops!’

‘Good! I just need one…’ She grinned, stabilising the weapon and looked to the man beside her that seemed a bit confused. ‘Let’s bury them with an avalanche!’

‘It’s going to take down the palace wall as well!’

‘It’s just one cannon. It won’t cause much damage. What it will do is stop the Huns long enough for the City Guard to deal with them.’

‘You’re right, but…’ he shook his head. ‘What about our escape?’

Heaving a sigh, she pointed to the wall behind them. ‘We’ll have to climb that, otherwise, we’ll be buried as well.’

He snickered. ‘And you said I was suicidal.’

‘At least my idea has more chances of working out...’ she said through bared teeth and a flushed face. ‘Sir!’

‘I hope you’re right.’

His last comment was swallowed by the cannon blast as Sakura fired past the enemies and hit a snow-covered slope, causing the white mass to collapse.

‘Run!’ The Major urged, pulling Kinomoto with him toward the stone walls.

The Huns didn’t even have time to understand what was happening before the thunderous white wave reached them.

Sakura started to climb, desperately hearing the avalanche roar behind them, as it got closer and closer. No matter how fast they escalated, they would never make it to the top in time. That’s when the City Guard showed up and threw them a pair of ropes, helping to pull them up.

‘Thank the gods!’ Sakura murmured, grabbing the rope and quickly climbing up.

She could hear the terrified enemy screams behind her. It was just the time for her to be pulled inside The Forbidden City’s walls as the snow splashed down onto the tall and strong barrier. Just as she had anticipated. She remembered hearing the Major say, once, that the North Wall had been designed precisely to withstand against snowslides. It seemed to work.

‘Are you alright, soldier?’ Someone asked her, pulling her up by the regimentals.

‘I think so…’ she said, trying to catch her breath.

‘Congratulations, Kinomoto. Your plan did work.’

She recognised the Major’s voice beside her. Even whilst out of breath, he was still taunting her insufferably. She turned to the side, seeing him braced against the wall while dismissing a soldier who tried to help him stand. Looking up, she saw some guards jump down the wall to finish off with any Hun that might’ve survived.

‘I have injured men on top of Mount Fuy.’ Xiao Lang told one of the soldiers as he stood up tall, seeing General Xue Lian approaching.

The General was seething. He never liked Li and, now that he was interfering with his job, despised him even more. ‘Your orders were only to train a bunch of idiots, Major! What have you done?’

Xiao Lang took a step forward with his trademark haughtiness. ‘I was protecting my Emperor, Sir. That’s a mission that stands above any order.’

‘Why, you punk! What did you do this time?’

‘The Huns were invading The Forbidden City, Sir. The Major couldn’t just stay still and do nothing,’ Sakura said, frowning at the man’s reaction -- completely unaware of who he was.

‘And who do you think you are to talk back at me?’ Xue Lian roared at her.

‘He’s one of my soldiers,’ Xiao Lang told the General. ‘My second in command. The one responsible for stopping the Huns before they reached the city.’

‘This avalanche could’ve buried and damaged the palace!’ Xue Lian’s face was even redder than before.

A new voice spoke from behind them. ‘I don’t think so, General Xue. You should know that this wall was built specially to withstand this kind of impact.’

Xue Lian turned around, seeing the Emperor approaching them with his Counsellors. Everybody got to their knees.

Wei regarded the group in front of him, focusing his gaze on the Major and, then, on the small soldier at his side. ‘On your feet.’

Sakura could hardly believe that she was standing in front of the great Sovereign of China. A rush of happiness and pride was very close to bursting inside her chest.

‘What happened here, Xiao Lang?’

‘The Huns were about to attack from the North wing, coming out of Mount Fuy,’ he explained calmly. ‘My troop was training when we saw the Huns carrying mortars through the mountain passing. We pursued them and attacked before they had the chance, which was a close call, for they already had the mortars set toward Your Majesty’s palace. We disrupted their plans and they despaired, running down the mountain. That’s when Kinomoto here had the idea of provoking the small avalanche to bury them.’

‘So, was the explosion we heard a mortar?’ inquired one of the counsellors.

‘Yes. We tried to warn the Guard of what was happening,’ the Major replied.

Wei turned to Xue Lian. ‘Why did you not heed the noise, General?’

The man was speechless. He was certain it had been just some prank with fireworks. ‘I could never imagine that would be the Huns attacking from the mountains, Your Majesty.’

The Emperor heaved a sigh, turning once again to the Major and his soldier. ‘You once more performed above and beyond your duty, Xiao Lang.’ He smiled. ‘Where are your men now?’

‘They’re at the top of the mountain. Many will need care. It was a very difficult fight.’

‘But they fought bravely. I knew you would turn those men into brave soldiers, Major.’ Wei got closer to him and rested a hand on his shoulder, grateful.

Xiao Lang opened a slow smile. The wise emperor was right. Those men had shown their worth. Something that he himself couldn’t see at first.

The emperor turned to Sakura who cast her eyes down. He, then, took a step to the side, standing in front of the young soldier with a somewhat curious gaze.

She clutched her fists to stop them from shaking with the fear of being discovered. Their Emperor was the Son of Heaven, the wisest of men on the Earth.

‘Aren’t you a bit young to be in the Army?’ the elder man inquired.

She bit her lip, holding her breath.

He nodded satisfied and smiled, auspiciously. ‘So young and already you have shown your potential and intelligence. I’m sure you’ll have a great military future, soldier.’

The Emperor took a step back and ordered Xue Lian to rescue Major Li’s troop before departing.

Once both the Emperor and Xue Lian had gone away, Xiao Lang turned to Kinomoto beside him displaying a smug look.

‘You did great, Kinomoto. It seems like you carry the military in your blood.’ He saw the green-eyed boy flash him an easy smile. ‘You just need to grow a beard now,’ he joked, lightly tapping his shoulder and walking away.


 

Sakura was lying down in a comfortable bed. It was quite different from the mat she had in her tent. She looked dazedly at the walls, watching the swaying lanterns hanging on the ceiling create flickering shadows.

After the battle, she and the Major had been taken to the medical ward, along with the rest of their troop. She had to dodge the well-meaning healers to avoid being stripped in front of everybody, tending to her wounds herself. Luckily they were just some scratches and bruises.

Kinomoto Touya, the Major, and the rest of his troop, once thought of as wimps, were now celebrated as brave warriors and heroes. It was odd how life put people into such extreme situations. It had been only a week since the incident with the Huns.

Someone knocked on her door and she made sure that her male hanfu wasn’t open before answering to it. She widened her eyes at the sight of the Major wearing an even more elaborate hanfu than the one she wore. At first look, he seemed just like any other noble, but, paying a bit of attention, one could see the many grazings he still had from the recent fight.

‘I need to talk to you, soldier.’

Sakura opened the door and let him in. He was, undoubtedly, about to say that the leisure times were over and it was time to get back to work -- and to the hard mat in a cold tent.

‘What would you like to talk about, Sir?’ she inquired straight away.

Xiao Lang grinned and sat on a comfortable armchair. He gazed at the young soldier. A long and intent look that caused Kinomoto to fidget, green eyes darting around the room. ‘Sit down. It’ll be a long talk.’

Sakura sat on a chair in front of him and tried to relax by snapping her neck and shoulder, but no matter how hard she tried it seemed impossible.

‘I’m coming from a meeting with the Emperor. We had been discussing the future of some soldiers and your name came out.’

‘My name?’ she asked, creasing her brow and tilting her head.

‘That’s correct. You obviously have a gift for military strategy. Despite being so young, you already show signs of being a prominent warrior and soldier. How old are you, exactly?’

'I’m… I’m 14,’ she stuttered, a bit embarrassed for almost telling him the truth. She had to remember to lower her age to justify her meagre body.

‘You’re still young, but you also have guts. I’m being promoted to General due to our action against the Huns. And I’m promoting you to Captain.’

She stood up in wide-eyed shock. ‘A-are you kidding me, Sir?’

He just smirked and leant back with his hands behind his head as he stretched his legs. ‘I became Captain at the age 16. It looks like you beat me to it. Of course that this means you’ll have to go through a more improved training than the other soldiers.’

‘Will I be able to study?’ she asked, trying to hold her anticipation.

‘Yes. You’ll study artillery, fighting, military strategy and engineering, among other things.’

Sakura stared him with a fixed gaze, unable to move. She would study! When would she ever imagine that? Never!

‘Can you read and write?’ the Major inquired, watching the delight on the boy’s eyes.

‘Somewhat,’ she muttered.

Because she wasn’t a good bride candidate and had lived in the orphanage for a long time, Mr Yang had taught her the very basics of writing and reading so that she’d help him with his correspondence and with running the house. She used to read the few books he kept in his office time and again.

‘I’ll teach you. The Military Academy is closed because of the war, so I’ll start instructing you myself. I’ll be your instructor, but I won’t take it easy on you. If anything, I’ll be even more rigorous than before.’

She frowned, taken aback. ‘Even more…? Are you trying to kill me?’

He guffawed at the remark, annoying her. ‘I’m not going to kill you. I’ll teach you all you need to know to become an excellent warrior.’ He stood up to pace around the room. ‘If I had a son, I’d want him to be just as smart as you, kid.’

‘You still can father children, Sir.’

The man scowled and shook his head. ‘Anyway, that doesn’t matter right now.’

He started explaining about how the training would proceed.

Sakura listened to every detail in fascination. She’d learn math and science, and to read and write properly; maybe she’d be able to learn other languages from countries far away. Her heart had never been so full of joy. Her mind had never dared to entertain the thought of achieving so much.

‘So? What do you say?’ Xiao Lang asked as he finished his explanation.

‘What do you mean, Sir?’

‘Do you accept it? Though, if you refused being instructed by me, you wouldn’t be as smart as I thought you were.’ He claimed, overbearing.

Sakura raised an eyebrow and felt very tempted to say ‘no’, just to antagonise him. Looking at the man in front of her, she wondered how could one person be so full of themselves. The Major walked around as if he himself were the Emperor of China. She knew him to be an excellent warrior. He knew that too, and that was what made him so confident.

The man started tapping his foot, showing impatience at her lack of response.

‘Obviously that I do, Sir!’ she answered, at last.

He grinned and rubbed his hands together. ‘Take the day to rest and relax. We’ll start tomorrow.’

‘Already?’ she asked without thinking about it.

‘You already know I can’t stand slackers, soldier.’ He scolded her.

‘Forgive me, Sir,’ she replied, bowing in a sign of respect and contrition.

Xiao Lang stared at the little soldier in front of him. ‘The Emperor has reallocated our troop to The Forbidden City. We’ll continue the basic training from where we stopped and you’ll receive extra lessons.’

‘So, you’ll keep training the other soldiers.’

‘Exactly. I’ll keep training them with your help.’

‘My help?’ She startled.

‘Why, being a Captain isn’t just having a rank added to your name.’ His mouth curved into an ironic smile.

‘I don’t know how to order people around, Sir.’

‘Don’t worry. You’ll learn.’ He guaranteed, leaving the room. ‘I’m the best instructor you could’ve asked for.’

Sakura remained staring at the closed door for a few heartbeats. She’d run around screaming at the top of her lungs that she would study if she could. Since she couldn't, she did the next best thing: ran to the bed, jumping on it and laughing as carefree as a child.

‘I’m gonna study! I’m gonna study!’ she rejoiced, jumping up and down on the bed.

Suddenly, she heard a crack sound and felt as the bed collapsed on the floor. She couldn’t stop laughing, even as she got to her feet feeling her back ache.

Sakura, then, took a deep breath, trying to calm herself. ‘And you’ll have the best student you could’ve asked for, Major,’ she declared confidently.

Abruptly, her door was opened. ‘Is everything alright, soldier?’ She heard the Major’s voice at her back. ‘What happened here?’

She tightly closed her hanfu and turned around with a livid face. ‘Hm… Well…’ she stammered, trying to find a good explanation. ‘I think there was termite on the bed.’

“What a ridiculous excuse!” she thought, checking the urge to facepalm herself.  ”He’ll never believe that!”

‘Ah, yes. Some of the older furniture really are infested with termites.’ He said it collectedly, but without hiding a smug smirk that let no doubt about him not believing her. ‘Unfortunately, you’ll have to fix that yourself. The Emperor can’t provide you with a new bed every night.’

Sakura looked down to hide her blushing face.

He closed the door but opened it again a second later. ‘And the next time you want to celebrate, jump over something sturdier, will you?’ He was shaking with laughter. ‘You’re such a child!’

‘I’m not a child!’ Sakura muttered to the closed door and couldn’t help thinking about how Ban used to get mad when people called him that way.

Letting herself fall on the mattress, she took a deep breath and closed her eyes tight, feeling her chest constrict again. Training would never be the same again without her friend there.

She opened her eyes again, staring at the ceiling. ‘I’ll show him, Ban! I’ll definitely show him!’


 

Sakura stood still beside her commanding officer at the ceremony of distinction in which she’d been promoted to Captain. That was a great honour bestowed upon her, however, the joy she should be feeling was tainted by the knowledge that many of her colleagues hadn’t survived. She wasn’t really close to the men in the troop other than Ban and Yancha, but would still miss some of the familiar faces.

She swallowed hard, watching as the Lord of Ten Thousand Years and His Imperial Highness, Prince Yue, and other nobles proceeded with the rites to honour the dead and celebrate the living.

Emperor Wei had been truly elated at granting the former Major his promotion. He couldn’t even disguise how proud he was about having the man as a General in his army.

Sakura had noticed -- though it would take a blind man not to do so -- that Li Xiao Lang was held in high regard by the Emperor. The Major… That is, the General, had mentioned earlier about requesting that the decoration was held in a simpler manner, but the Emperor had been adamant about celebrating his achievements.  

She cast a sideway glance to the General. He was looking even more stoic than usual; she hadn’t ever thought that such a thing was possible. He politely refused any drinks offered to him, unlike any other military or noble around the room.

Her eyes surveyed the room and locked on the Imperial Dames at the other side of the Great Hall. The older women were in front of the young ones as if protecting them from the men in the chamber. Sakura saw them graciously strolling to where she and the General were standing to congratulate them for their promotion before leaving the celebration.

They were all of them with their heads down, as it was expected of women. Despite being dressed in gorgeous attires, made of the purest silk, and embellished headdresses, those women were also oppressed. The only difference between them and any other women in China was the fact that they were covered in gold.

The Dames said nothing; just curtsied as one after another paraded in front of the two of them. One of the younger Dames, just a kid, really, stumbled on the seam of her hanfu, falling on her knees.

Sakura involuntarily took a step ahead, reaching out to help the girl up, but felt the General hold her arm, halting her action.

‘I was just going to help,’ she clarified, puzzled at his attitude.

‘You mustn’t touch an Imperial Dame,’ he muttered emphatically. ‘She’s a Princess.’

Sakura straightened up, vexed at not being able to help. She saw one of the older women roughly pull her up, berating the princess with hissing words.

The girl lifted her head with her eyes in flames, as she frowned at the hissing woman, and her beautiful ruby-brownish eyes met Sakura’s, who couldn’t help smiling at the girl's little sign of defiance. The princess widened her eyes and swiftly lowered her head, with a flushed face, before curtsying and departing.

‘I saw that, Kinomoto,’ the General muttered as the Dames walked away. ‘Don’t even think about it. Princess Mei Ling is already promised in marriage.’

Sakura frowned at hearing that. ‘She looks so young. She’s just a child.’

Xiao Lang grinned. ‘High-ranking officers can get married to Imperial Dames, with the blessing of the Emperor. However, you’re still too young and the rank of “Captain” isn’t enough to earn you a Princess. You still have a long way to go.’

She gave him a rueful grin. ‘Haven’t you heard me say that she’s just a child? She isn’t even of age to get married, yet. Plus, I don’t intend on getting married.’

‘Good!’ he said, resting his hand on her slim shoulder. ‘Marriages are only useful to sire a son. Other than that, it’s just an inconvenience to a career military.’

She just stared at the General, who pursed his mouth in a self-satisfied smirk, and shook her head, taking a deep breath. Looking away from him, she wondered how would she endure hearing all that nonsense without replying.

”May Buddha help me control my tongue,” she thought.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

Sakura rambled over the surroundings of The Forbidden City, noticing the awe and keen interest in which people greeted her. Men all around, even civilians, practically saluted her wherever she went; while women doted on the youngster wearing the Imperial uniform and displaying the rank of Captain. With such a huge accomplishment, everybody in the city was aware of who she was and how she helped protect them against the Huns.

She pressed her lips with a slight frown at the thought of what would happen if they ever found out who she really was. She’d be mercilessly clubbed, for sure. Had she been walking around unattended as a woman, men would consider it their right to abuse her and women would deride her.

Trudging on, to avoid slumping her shoulders, she heaved a sigh. She had just returned from Ban’s father's house. She went there to personally hand over the accolades, as well as his part of the reward bestowed by the Emperor for their actions to save China. More than that, she had given the boy’s father part of her own reward, even if she knew that there was no amount enough to make up for his life.

The old man tried to keep his composure and coolness at hearing about his son’s death. His voice was choked with emotion as he insisted that Ban had been far too young to join the army. He just knew his boy wouldn’t survive, but that stubborn son of his went out and enlisted, anyways.  

Sakura argued that while Yu Ban had been one of the youngest soldiers of the troop, he had fought valiantly and had played a crucial role in saving not only the Emperor’s life but the lives of everyone in The Forbidden City. That His Majesty himself recognised that and chose to honour his bravery and sacrifice.

The grief the old man had been doing his best to suppress finally broke through as his shaking hands accepted the award and pouch of coins from her hands.

When she said that his son’s last thought had been directed at him; and that his dying wish was that his father knew he’d died with honour, the man’s eyes grew bright with unshed tears and he excused himself out of the room. Men don’t cry -- especially in front of other men.

She closed her eyes and shook her head with her bottom lip jutting out as she once more controlled the desire to cry. Ban had been more than a fellow soldier, he had become her best friend during those two difficult months and the memory of him dying in her arms still left her feeling choked up. And that feeling would never go away. She’d forever carry the guilt about his death.

Sakura furrowed her brow, slightly tilting her head as she thought about Ban’s reaction to finding out she was a woman. She wondered whether or not he would be able to respect her and continue to treat her the same way, had he not died.

Touching her own face, she retraced Ban’s movements as he had tried to dry her tears at those last moments. There was a sweetness in his eyes… She liked to think that, had he survived, Ban wouldn’t have changed how he conducted himself around her after finding out the truth.

At a corner of her mind, Sakura registered the cadence of a horse trotting and straightened up, as if by reflex, while absent-mindedly looking at the approaching horseman. She furrowed her brow when a familiar steed came to a full stop almost on top of her and General Li cleverly dismounted beside her.

‘Where have you been the whole day?’ he snapped at her.

‘Today’s my day off,’ Sakura dismissed the subject with a shrug, unwilling to let him harass her and turned away to resume her stroll around the city.

He pulled his horse’s reins, matching her pace.

‘You’re wearing a uniform,’ he noticed with a frown. ‘And it’s the ceremonial suit, on top of that.’

Sakura looked at him sideways and sighed. She felt like telling him to mind his own business, reminding him that what she did or didn’t do on her day off was her problem, but decided against it. He was still her superior and had a somewhat vindictive streak.

She couldn’t deny that she was learning a lot from the man, even if at moments like this she wondered if it really was worth the effort of putting up with him. Since becoming his apprentice, she felt like the General kept her within close range at all times. He wasn’t like that with the rest of their troop.

Looking around, Sakura thought that she could just disappear whenever she felt like it. “Touya” was a man who knew how to read and write; plus, she had enough resources - both material and intellectual - to start a new life at some far away corner of China as someone else.

The only problem was her seemingly insatiable desire to learn and, unfortunately, General Li Xiao Lang was not only an outstanding instructor but also seemed equally desirous to teach.

‘So?’ he insisted. ‘What’s the reason for wearing the imperial garb around the city?’

She took a deep breath with a forced smile.

‘I went to deliver Ban’s reward to his family,’ she said at last. ‘And I thought that wearing the uniform would make it more respectful and solemn.’

‘Hmph,’ he narrowed his eyes. ‘The two of you were very close, huh?’

‘Yes. He was like a brother to me.’

‘Your attitude was commendable,’ he nodded, looking away for a moment, before watching the young Captain again. ‘It speaks of your consideration for your colleagues, which is important in the army. It was also wise that you chose to honour one of the soldiers you lost under your command.’

‘General,’ Sakura stopped in her tracks and tilted her head up to meet the General's gaze, her emerald eyes burning intensely. ‘I went to fulfil the dying wish of a friend. I didn’t go as a military man, as a Captain, but as a man with a promise to keep.’

Xiao Lang regarded his apprentice’s face in silence while taking in his words. He slowly nodded, maintaining eye contact to convey that he understood.

‘Yu Ban was lucky to have a good friend like you in the short time he was in the army.’

Sakura tilted her head with a furrowed brow. ‘Have you never done such a thing for a fellow soldier, General? You’ve been through so many battles already... Have you never done this for a friend? Or were you fortunate enough to never lose one?’

‘You can’t lose what you never had, Kinomoto.’

She froze mid-step, her eyes going wide as she realised what he was saying.

The open reaction and scrutinising look from the young Captain caught Xiao Lang off balance. ‘I joined the Imperial Army when I was 11. At the time my father was part of the Emperor’s Personal Guard; that I could join them so young was an exception and an honour bestowed upon me due to the great regard the Emperor had for my father.’ He hadn’t intended to start talking but the need to explain himself had been too strong. It was as though the measuring intensity of those eyes drew the words out from deep inside him. ‘Obviously, this was met with suspicion by the others. Especially since I had extra instruction, on top of what the others in my troop received. It gave me an advantage, but as you can probably imagine, it didn’t really give me a chance to make friends.’

Xiao Lang saw Kinomoto’s brow furrow thoughtfully and wondered what the kid was thinking about.

Sakura finally looked away, a faint smile spreading across her face. Now she knew why the other officers kept him at arm’s length, even as they demonstrated a clear respect for his military skills.

‘So that’s how you became Captain when you were only 16.’  She shrugged, tucking her hands into her pockets. ‘No matter how many times I calculated it before, it just wasn’t adding up.’

Xiao Lang snickered, trying not to outright laugh at his pupil. ‘Maybe it wasn’t adding up because you didn’t know how to count.’

Sakura whipped her head toward him, a spark in her eyes. ‘I can count!’

‘Now you do! But we had two very arduous weeks until you could grasp the most basic concepts,’ the General teased. ‘Speaking of which, have you finished the exercises I left for you yesterday?’

‘Yes. I solved them last night.’

Xiao Lang gave a satisfied nod. ‘Good! Let’s go, then.’ His stride turned purposeful as he tugged at his horse’s reins. The animal snorted but fell in behind him.

‘Where are we going?’ Sakura followed him, matching her steps with his.

‘I want to take a look at those exercises. It may be your day off, but you don’t get to slack off with your training, Captain.’

She thought about arguing, but, judging by his tone, anything she said would only serve as an excuse for him to add a couple laps to her run around the palace the next day.

She only sighed and shook her head, thinking: “It’s no wonder that he has no friends.”


Sakura still felt in awe every time she entered The Forbidden City’s extensive library. The General had taken her there when they started with lessons on military strategy a few months ago. She had gotten much better at reading and writing and, in every spare moment she got, could always be found in there.

She sighed in satisfaction, sauntering in between shelves full of books.

‘Why, you’re here already, Captain Kinomoto...’ the Imperial librarian approached her with a big smile. ‘It’s an honour to have you so often in my humble abode.’

Sakura returned the smile. It was nice to feel so appreciated, although she suspected that the elderly man would have greeted any visitor with such enthusiasm. She didn’t understand why the people of the city paid so little attention to the library.

‘I’m looking for a Calculus book,’ she said. ‘I’m having problems understanding something and want to try and study about it by myself before asking the General.’

‘Ah, but of course! A career military man is always interested in such things.’ He immediately busied himself with searching for what she requested, leaving her to explore the shelves by herself.

Sakura was skimming a book that caught her attention when he returned, carrying not one, but three books.

‘Those three titles are very interesting. They might go a bit beyond what you’re studying now, but you’re a persistent and smart boy. I’m certain that you’ll soon grasp what they’re talking about.’

She took the offered tomes and flashed him a smile. ‘I appreciate your help, Master Wan.’

She turned away, walking toward a table to start studying when she noticed a little girl nervously entering the library and walking in her general direction. Sakura recognised her as Princess Mei Ling, the young Dame who fell in front of her at the ceremony in which she received her rank of Captain.

At seeing her, the princess faltered, stopping where she stood and looking down with a deep blush on her face.

Sakura took notice of the two books the girl was bringing with her, tensely holding them against her chest. She watched as the younger girl fought an internal battle, probably trying to decide if she should carry on or disappear.  After a few seconds, the princess seemed to decide for fleeing and swirled to leave.

‘Please, don’t go!’ Mei Ling stopped where she was, her back still to the soldier. ‘Please, come inside,’ Sakura continued, pleading with the girl. ‘If my being here bothers you, then I’ll be on my way.’

Hesitatingly, Mei Ling turned around, glancing sideways at Sakura. ‘I… I don’t understand,’ she said with a quiet voice.

Sakura offered her an encouraging smile, making the princess relax just slightly. ‘You don’t need to go just because I’m here,’ she gestured to the books in her arms. ‘Your Highness came to return those, right?’

Mei Ling’s face took a crimson hue and she held the tomes even tighter. ‘Yes. I’ll give them back and try to convince Master Wan to let me borrow some more.’

Sakura flashed her a disarming smile. ‘If he refuses, let me know and I’ll intercede for Your Highness. One should not deny books to those who wish to read them.’

Mei Ling tilted her head, watching Sakura. ‘You’re not like the other officers, Captain Kinomoto.’

She smiled sheepishly, scratching her cheek. ‘Everyone should have equal rights, don’t you agree?’

The princess widened her eyes at hearing the soldier’s words and a smile came to her lips. ‘I… I think so, Captain.’ She bowed her head with rosy cheeks. ‘Thank you for offering to help me. I’ll try to talk to Master Wan. I hope I don’t get on your way, Sir.’

‘Not at all,’ Sakura paid reverence to the princess, proceeding to sit at a table to study.  

She was solving exercises when she heard muffled footsteps and looked up, finding the young Dame near the table, looking at her while holding a book.

‘Can I… Can I sit here, Sir?’ Mei Ling requested, keeping her eyes to the floor.

Sakura gestured toward the chair. ‘Please, be my guest…’

Mei Ling sat in front of the young Captain, opening the book she had caught.

Sakura hid a smile, thinking that the girl reminded her of Cixi, in a way, and wondered how her friend was faring. Then she shook her head and went back to her exercises, not noticing that the Princess watched her with a hint of adoration in her eyes.


In almost no time, Sakura became quite proficient at the Shūfǎ – the Chinese art of calligraphy, as well as at reading, at arithmetics and military strategy. She had even started to venture into foreign literature, though that was still a new enterprise, with the objective of learning other languages.

She could usually forget herself inside the Imperial Library, devouring book after book. And the more she read, the more she wanted to know. It was her greatest source of pleasure to learn about her land, the world and the universe.

Now and then, she’d meet Princess Mei Ling at the Library and they would spend some time talking about anything and nothing at all, even though the young Dame still held herself with some reservation at the idea of talking so openly to a man. Sakura could tell that the girl was clever and ingenious and kind-hearted, especially when she’d forget herself and talked enthusiastically about her dreams and aspirations. Mei Ling had so much more to offer than becoming someone’s wife. It wasn’t fair.

The practical part of her education was a somewhat different story, even if Sakura bore the physical training well and with great zeal.

The General was every bit as good a teacher as he claimed to be and, truth be told, he couldn’t really complain about her dedication and improvement, once she was living up to her word of being the best damn student he could’ve asked for. 

Li wasn’t kidding about being even more severe than before, either; but Sakura couldn’t help thinking that he tended to tyranny sometimes. The worst of it was that he was rubbing off on her, especially when the rest of their platoon resisted to comply with her command.

‘You’re holding your sword below the waistline of the enemy, Kinomoto!  Hold it straight!’ the General snapped at her for the third time that day.

Sakura only clenched her teeth and, in spite of feeling like her arms were about to fall off, she just tightened her grip on the handle of the sword, lifting it up to continue with the exhausting drill.

Yancha and the others who survived the battle a few months ago, along with a few new additions, were also practising, but it seemed like the General’s eyes could see only his pròtegè. Sometimes, Sakura needed to count to a hundred and back to avoid letting out some choice words and ruin everything she had earned so far.

‘Alright, I want you to pair up!’ The General instructed, moving to the middle of the group that immediately formed a circle around him.

Pu hastily appointed “Touya” as his partner – or should it be opponent? – and was the first one to step into the centre of the circumference, throwing down the gauntlet at the young Captain.

Sakura heaved a sigh, certain that Pu would try to humiliate her again. And that, once again, the General would only watch from the sidelines. Pu had never liked Kinomoto, to begin with, and after the promotion to Captain, the taunting just became worse.

‘Let’s see if you really deserve the rank of Captain, Kinomoto,’ Pu sneered in contempt, as his adversary stepped forward.

Sakura didn’t answer; she’d been used to derision all her life and Pu’s scorn was immaterial, really. His disregard for the chain-of-command, on the other hand, was getting on her nerves.

She got into position, anticipating that the man would charge first and wasn’t disappointed in the slightest. Their weapons collided in a violent impact, the force of it almost making her lose her balance. Sakura widened her eyes, dismayed at the fact that the man didn’t seem to be holding back.

‘Are you scared, Kinomoto?’ Pu scoffed with a crooked smile. ‘The Imperial Army doesn’t deserve such a puss of a Captain!’

Holding tightly to her sword, Sakura narrowed her eyes, looking over her adversary.

He was obviously stronger than her. She knew that in a direct confrontation she’d have no chance. Her arms were already tired and her blade was starting to shake with the strength needed to hold against the pressure put on it. She was in a pinch, and couldn’t meet the man head on. Luckily, for her, she didn’t need to.

She strained her arms, disengaging his weapon enough to get an opening, then kicked him in the leg and backed out of his range. In her new position, she had a clear view of the General, who was just watching the training with his arms crossed and a knowing look on his face.

She grinned. Pu was strong, but he was nowhere near as strong or skilled as the General. His technique was lacking, he concentrated too much effort on brute force and made very basic mistakes when angered. Plus, it was so easy to get under his skin…  

‘You know, Pu…’ she smirked with a devious smile. ‘You’re a very privileged man.’

‘What are you talking about?’ he frowned, none the wiser.

‘It’s not always that a big man like you get to be ordered around by a child, is it?’ she mocked him.

The man glared at her, with a flushed face and bared teeth. ‘Shut up!’

She took a fighting stance once more, marking his every move. ‘After this fight... After I take you down, you’ll do 50 laps around the palace to learn how to show respect for YOUR Captain.’

‘You’ll never defeat me!’ he thundered, charging forward in a frenzy.

Sakura couldn’t help thinking about how fragile male egos were, that one just needed to mishandle their pride to make them lose their heads.

The jarring impact of their swords sent sparks flying, while their feet danced around each other, almost too fast for those watching to follow. The more Sakura deflected the erratic blows thrown her way, the more uncoordinated Pu’s attacks became.

‘Is that all you can do?’ she taunted, forcing his blade aside, thrusting her weapon towards his midriff in a crushing riposte.

The impact creased Pu’s armour, the vein in his neck starting to throb with his anger. ‘You bastard!’

‘Tsk, tsk, tsk…’ she blocked another of his blows, feeling a bit winded. The fight had to come to an end soon. ‘It’ll be 60 laps around the palace, now.’

He jabbed the sword at her, his movement uncoordinated and flailing. She ducked to avoid being hit and kicked his legs out from under him with a smooth sweep. She took pleasure in seeing the confused and angry expression on his face when she stepped on the hand holding his sword. He grunted in pain, releasing it, and she kicked it out of his reach.

‘Why, Pu! You’re already eating dirt...’ she remarked, stepping away and eliciting laughter from the troop.

That was it. The match was over.

‘I’ll kill you, Kinomoto!’ He sprang at her, trying to punch her at any cost.

He had almost caught her off guard and Sakura instinctively shielded herself with her sword. Pu hit right on the edge of her sword and it sliced his skin open. He had clearly been pushed far past the point of rational behaviour, so she dropped her blade, dodging his desperate attacks and preparing herself to finish the fight. By the way he was breathing, his stamina could run out at any moment, and her small frame would allow her to dodge away from his frantic attempts to grab her.

‘Seventy laps. And it’s Captain Kinomoto for you…’ She let a grin slide onto her face as she easily evaded his assaults. ‘Are you trying to get to the hundredth?’

Without warning, Pu landed a kick to her solar plexus, making her double over, falling to her knees with her hands on her stomach, unable to breathe. It seemed the fight had made her feel too smug and she ended up relapsing with her form.

The small victory seemed to cool some of Pu’s blinding rage. He took a step back, almost calmly, and gave her a huge self-satisfied grin. ‘It’ll never get to a hundred, KID!’

Sakura lifted her face and clenched her fists, glaring at Pu. That was it! She was drawing the line. She was their Captain and he was going to learn respect, one way or another. She stood up, her eyes ablaze, and motioned the soldier back to the fight.  

Pu’s smile vanished and he charged his opponent once more, unwilling to give the Captain time to fully recover.

She read his movements and countered his attacks, blow for blow. She blocked a punch, took a step back and grabbed his outstretched arm to get Pu out of balance. With a sweeping kick, she got him on one knee and spun to his back, immobilising him before knocking him out with a kick.

Sakura straightened herself up, looking down on the men at the troop who looked at her in incredulous silence.

‘Yancha,’ she called out to the burly man, seeing him step forward. ‘Take this fool to the medical ward.’

‘Yes, Kid... Er… Captain,’ Yancha immediately carried out his orders, picking the passed out soldier up from the ground.

‘And stay with him to make sure that he’ll take a hundred laps around the palace before sunrise tomorrow,’ she instructed, watching as he walked away.

Taking a deep breath, Sakura turned to the rest of the troop and strutted to where the General stood, her movements firm and precise. 

She took notice of Li’s seemingly unflappable stance and was surprised to spot a gleam of satisfaction in the General’s amber eyes. For a split second, she wondered if anyone else could see the “crack” in his usually malcontented façade. 

She shook her head, aware that it was probably something only noticeable by those who knew him. And it seemed that Sakura was starting to know him well enough. So much so that, when she stopped beside him, she had no reservations about taking over the rest of the training.

‘Mui, Chén; step forward. You’re next!’

She understood now why the General never stood up to punish the soldiers who disregarded Touya’s authority, despite the break in protocol. He was expecting that the Captain thrived without support.

And it seemed that, because of that, she had finally found her own voice as Captain

To be continued.

Chapter Text

Sakura was, once again, absorbed in her readings at the Imperial Library. She had found an interesting book about the Frankish Military Campaigns that – despite being a hard reading in a foreign language which made the use of a wordbook necessary – was giving her an interesting perspective at Western war tactics.

‘You’re studying again, Kinomoto.’

Startled, she jerked her head up, locating the source of the sceptical voice that had interrupted her. General Li came to sit beside her, resting his feet on the table. His movements were sluggish and imprecise. He was clearly tired, judging by the way he slouched in his seat and yawned.

She shrugged with the hint of a smile on her lips. ‘I found an interesting book.’

‘You’re practically living in this Library. No one ever taught you that there are other pleasures in life?’

‘What are you talking about, Sir?’ She frowned, sitting up in her chair.

‘Well, why read about the West, when we can talk to westerners?’ He motioned to the book in front of her.

Sakura understood even less.

Xiao Lang laughed at the boy’s innocence but thought that he was also like that when at Touya’s age.

‘There’s a French girl at Feng Shan’s establishment,’ he explained with a wolfish smile that reminded Sakura of their first encounter at Quang Dan’s brothel, in Shanghai.

Sakura felt goosebumps at thinking about that occurrence. Sometimes, as Touya, it was easy to forget that he had been the only man to touch her bare skin.

She stood abruptly, her chair screeching as it was shoved backwards across the floor. ‘If you will excuse me, Sir, working the security detail at Prince Yue’s wedding was gruelling, and I’m tired’

Xiao Lang stretched his back, closing his eyes. ‘Yes, making sure that Nobles and dignitaries remain safe during a three-day event can be physically wearing and damned hard work.’

Sakura shook her head, her brow creasing as she leant in toward the General. ‘With all due respect, Sir,’ she said, keeping her voice low, ‘Prince Yue is an idiot for insisting on holding such a pompous ceremony in times of War. The Huns have halted their advance for the moment, but it’s just a matter of time until they retake the offensive.’ She clenched her jaw. ‘Putting not only his life, but His Majesty’s in danger like that was pedantic and childish.’

‘You’re right. It was exhausting to be vigilant all that time,’ Xiao Lang opened his eyes, a trace of a smile played across his lips. ‘But we were able to avoid a tragedy. You did a great job at identifying the threat so quickly. You have eyes like a damned hawk!’

Sakura averted her eyes. She couldn’t say exactly why, but her gut told her that the man captured with a blowpipe and poisoned darts hadn’t actually been a Hun spy. In her experience -- and everything she had read on the Huns' offensive -- pointed to them being more likely to use a direct strike than to try a stealthy approach. Even the attempted attack through the mountains was somewhat straightforward.

They had used torture to get the truth out of the prisoner. Remembering the sights and sounds put a lump in her throat and stomach. It had been her first practical lesson on torture techniques and it was certain to haunt her for a long time.

Xiao Lang sat up straight, swinging his feet off the table and giving her a lecherous smirk. ‘Well, I say we have reason to celebrate yet another feat of yours.’

‘There’s nothing to be celebrated…’ Sakura rolled her eyes, then returned to her previous excuse. ‘And I said I’m tired.’

The General frowned at the kid’s reaction. ‘Am I right in assuming that you’ve never been with a woman, boy?’

Sakura gritted her teeth and tried not to let her displeasure show. ‘Respectfully, Sir, this doesn’t concern you.’

The man let out an amused laugh. ‘Don’t tell me that you’re afraid of women?’

‘I’m not afraid of women! I just don’t think of them like… that…’ she stuttered, trying to control herself. If she lost her cool, she risked losing everything. “The General is not a complete fool,” she thought to herself.

‘Kid…’ Xiao Lang shook his head, his words dripping condescension. ‘There are two kinds of women: those who are whores and can satisfy a man in bed; and those who are frigid and only serve to give us children. Concubines or Breeders, you see?’

Sakura went slack-jawed for a couple seconds, trying to process what he had just said. ‘So, what you’re saying is that they’re just hollow bodies?’

‘Beautiful bodies! An ugly woman is worthless.’

Sakura clenched her fists, trying to mask the sudden quiver of rage and fear that ran up her spine at the memory of his weight over hers in that blasted bedroom, of his hands and lips exploring her body, uninvited. “So this is what he thinks of women.” She offered him a tight-lipped smile. ‘Women are children of the gods just like men, Sir! They have two arms, two legs, a heart and a head…’

“A brighter head than many men, even,” she thought.

He pressed his lips together, looking at his pupil with suspicion. ‘So what are you saying? Do you think they should have the same rights as us?’

‘And why not, Sir?’ She clasped her arms behind her body with her head held high.

‘Simply because the gods gave them tits while giving us brains.’ His tone told her that this was something she ought to know already.

Sakura was speechless, wondering how could a smart, educated man like him be so unspeakably hollow? She was very tempted to strangle him.

‘Let’s think…’ Xiao Lang seemed completely unfazed by her aghast reaction, his words still casual and matter-of-fact. ‘A woman your age, for example, could only take care of a house, raise children and open her legs to her husband without complaining.’

‘That’s because these things are all a woman my age is allowed to learn, Sir.’ If he wanted to use that skewed rationality to convert her, he’d have something coming.

‘And what good would it be for her to learn about… artillery or arithmetics? A woman’s only task is to run a house.’

‘An educated woman could help her husband to provide for the house.’

‘Oh, certainly! Maybe they should go out to work…’ he pitched his voice higher. ‘I bet they would make excellent soldiers! What a notion!’ He rolled his eyes, his tone becoming more mocking. ‘Don’t you know, Captain, that a woman can’t even hold a sword!’

Sakura would love to throw on his face that, yes, a woman could hold a sword, and learn arithmetics, and strategy, and engineering; and could become a good soldier who saved the Emperor’s life. That a woman was capable enough to even be promoted to Captain and order a bunch of men around. Instead, she was left with a bitter taste in her mouth, biting back every single word she wished to say to him, but couldn’t. It was fortunate that her time as a soldier had taught her some self-control.

‘Let’s go, Kinomoto!’ the General stood up, marching to the building’s entrance.

‘Where are we...’

‘Let’s meet some of the women you’re so keen on defending.’

‘But I already told you…’ she spluttered.

He halted in his tracks and turned to glare at her. ‘That’s an order!’

And, at those words, Sakura had no choice but to follow him.


 

Sakura stood beside Li in front of a solid, ornamented door framed by red lanterns and sighed in exasperation. ‘I don’t like this place,’ she told the man, turning to face him.

‘Kinomoto! Don’t be such a brat,’ he scolded, clapping her on the shoulder

Sakura took a deep breath, fighting not to panic as she wondered how to get out of this situation. ‘I really don’t want to go in there…’

‘Don’t be shy, kid.’ He opened the door and motioned for the Captain to follow him. ‘It’s about time you became a man.’

Reluctantly, Sakura stepped inside. She was instantly assailed by a pungent and exotic smell which she recognised as burning incense. The trick was almost enough to disguise the odour of liquor from the ambience. She immediately noticed that the place was a lot more luxurious and elegant than the whorehouse she had been sold to. The walls were covered in burgundy silk with elaborate brilliant patterns and the lanterns hanging from the ceiling actually illuminated the room.

Sakura blinked at the sight of the women in tasteful silk hanfus. It was nothing like the revealing clothes Quang’s girls wore back in Shanghai, no exposed legs or bosoms.

‘Many of the girls here are foreigners,’ Xiao Lang confided in a low whisper. ‘I’ll introduce you to Miss Daidouji. She lived in the West for several years, in France I believe. She has a lovely accent.’

Sakura found it impossible to speak with her stomach performing more acrobatic manoeuvres than the troupe of tumblers that performed at the Prince’s wedding. She walked after the General watching as some of the women served the men a lot of drinks and even some food all the while practically sitting on the patron’s laps. Out of the corner of her eyes, Sakura caught some hurried movement and turned just to see one of the “girls” step out of the room with a client.

The General stopped short, causing Sakura to thump into his back. She took a moment to gather her bearings, her heart racing.

‘My, my! What an honour to receive the newest General of the Empire,’ said a soft and delicate voice ahead of them. ‘I will admit I’ve been expecting you for some time, General Li…’

Sakura stretched her neck to take a glimpse from over the man’s shoulder and saw a beautiful and graceful woman practically floating their way. Her long black hair cascaded across her shoulders, her pale complexion serving to highlight her unusual purplish-blue eyes. Sakura couldn’t help but stare; she’d never seen anyone like this woman before. 

‘Ah, you’re as gorgeous as ever, Miss Daidouji.’ The grin on Xiao Lang’s face was hungry, his eyes undressing Daidouji as he took in her figure. Sakura was astounded by the other woman’s composure, the ease that she displayed in the face of obvious lust.

‘Oh, you…’ Daidouji laughed as though she hadn’t a care in the world. ‘I see that you’re still your usual flirt.’ The concubine unaffectedly stepped into the General’s personal space and held out her hand with the palm facing down.

Sakura widened her eyes at seeing the General bow toward the offered hand to kiss it, the gesture going on long enough to make her squirm uncomfortably.

‘I brought a friend to meet you. He’s interested in all things from the west,’ Xiao Lang tugged at Sakura’s arm, dragging her forward.

The concubine stared at the young officer beside Li. ‘He doesn’t look like your son, General.’

Li rested a hand on Sakura’s shoulder. ‘This is Captain Kinomoto. I hope you will take good care of him.’ Despite herself, Sakura flushed to hear the pride in Li’s voice.

‘Captain? Pray, so young, and already a Captain?’ Daidouji cried, mystified.

Sakura shrunk her shoulders upon the many curious looks she received at the woman’s outburst.

‘He saved our Emperor’s life,’ the General said, puffing his chest out.

‘Long live the Emperor!’ hailed a drunk client.

Daidouji showed them to a round table at a corner of the noisy saloon and called for drinks to be served before moving away to attend to some other matter.

Sakura waited until the General had settled himself before doing the same. She sat with her back to the wall and a perfect view of the whole room. She took notice of two other concubines who immediately moved to attend to the table, for all intents and purposes, throwing themselves into the General’s arms.

Sakura kept her eyes on the room, just nursing her cup without actually drinking from it, as she tried to ignore the giggling attendants pouring drink after drink in the General’s cup.

‘You know, Kinomoto, there are some beautiful women here. You should savour it!’ Xiao Lang laughed at the young Captain’s jitters, gulping down his drink. ‘My first time was a servant in my father’s house. By the gods! But she was an ugly lady!’ He shook his head, shuddering at the memory.

‘I can’t even imagine…’ Sakura muttered, looking away from him with a scowl, feeling uncomfortable at the fact that he had pulled one of the concubines onto his lap. ‘Especially when you seem to have any woman you desire.’

She waited for the snappy comeback from the General. When it didn’t come, Sakura chanced to look back at him and found the man staring into space while distractedly rubbing his head.

Xiao Lang then pulled himself away from the woman on his knees and grabbed his drink, downing it in a single gulp.

‘Not all… there was this… this one girl,’ he mumbled, supporting his head on his hand.

Sakura narrowed her eyes, wondering how many glasses he’d had, to be already slurring like that.

‘This girl I met in Shanghai was beautiful, Kinomoto. Really beautiful…’

Sakura widened her eyes, finally paying attention to what he was saying. She felt her mouth go dry and her heart race.

‘She had the most beautiful eyes, so green and shiny, they looked like emeralds.’ He ran his hand through his hair and then asked for another drink.

Silence fell on the table for a few heartbeats.

‘She had green eyes, you said?’ Daidouji, who had come back at some point, asked. ‘It’s rare to see that eye colour in China.’ She turned to look at Sakura, who looked down.

He shook his head to get rid of the girl’s image. ‘She either became a whore or died in the streets. Damn! She cost me 300 coins and all I got from it was an injury to the head.’ He washed down another glass, as if trying to get rid of a sour taste in his mouth, and slammed his fists against the table. ‘I’ll give you a piece of advice, kid,’ he pointed at Sakura, leaning forward. ‘Never bid at a virgin’s auction, no matter how beautiful she might be…’

Sakura looked at him with a creased brow, watching him stand up.

‘If that girl hadn’t been so headstrong, I’d’ve done something that I’d regret for the rest of my life. Something cowardly and sickening.’ He narrowed his gaze as he stared at the Captain. ‘A real man don’t ever force himself on an unwilling woman. Never!’

He was dead serious. Sakura felt herself gasping for breath and clenched her hands, clasping the legs of her pants till her knuckles turned white. She looked away, unable to hold the man’s intent gaze and simply nodded, agreeing with his statement. She knew that if she tried to speak, it would come out in a trembling, faltering voice.

In silence, Sakura watched as the General stood up and pulled one of the serving girls flushed against him. ‘Enjoy it, Kinomoto!’ He waved at her, taking off with his chosen company for the night.

Sakura scowled, pressing her lips together and massaged her temples.  She closed her eyes, not knowing what to do with his surprising statement. She had always assumed that he felt no regrets about trying to have his way with her. It had been somewhat confusing for her to get to know the man as well as she had. His treatment of her at Quang’s brothel had let her feeling like she had an obligation to hate him, but she was seeing the good in him, slipping through the cracks in his carefully constructed walls. When he made her laugh with a joke, or when they just shared a companionable moment, she felt guilty for letting him lift her spirits. Blind hatred was easy. As in so many other areas of her life, Xiao Lang was making things very difficult.

‘Is everything alright, Captain?’ Daidouji inquired with an arched brow.

Sakura shook her head, the noise in the saloon creeping under her skin and making the world spin. ‘I… I need to… I need to take a leak,’ she stood up, ready to leave the brothel and go back to the barracks.

The concubine got immediately to her feet. ‘Of course. Come with me and I’ll take you to the restroom.’ She took Sakura’s hand, giving her no chance to escape.

Sakura was guided across the room and up a flight of stairs, into a luxuriant bedroom. She turned to look at the raven-haired woman who had let go of her hand. ‘Where are we?’

‘In my room. I thought you’d prefer if we had more privacy,’ she explained, closing the door behind her. ‘Judging by what the General said, this is your first time, isn’t it? Don’t worry, I’ll teach you everything.’

Sakura couldn’t help thinking about how unfair it seemed that a woman as delicate as Miss Daidouji - with such a beautiful and kind smile - found herself trapped in that kind of life. Much to Sakura’s surprise, however, the concubine prowled toward her, with an alluring look in her eyes that seemed completely at odds on the petite woman.

‘You have such beautiful eyes,’ Daidouji hummed, in a singsong voice, caressing the soldier’s face. ‘And such delicate features. You certainly will become a handsome man,’ she slowly moved her hands down the scared boy’s jaw and neck.

Sakura backed away, her heart in her throat, with her arms out and her palms forward. ‘L-lo-look, Miss Daidouji,’ she stammered. ‘You’re a very beautiful and interesting lady, but I… I don’t… I can’t sleep with you.’

The concubine just seemed to find that reaction endearing and reached out, trying to hold the strewn hands. ‘I already said that you don’t need to worry. The first time is always…’

‘I said no!’ Sakura pulled her hands away, spinning around and stumbling toward the door.

Daidouji threw herself against the door, stopping Sakura from opening it.

‘What kind of man are you?’ she shrieked, grabbing the Captain’s wrist and pulling it forward. ‘Or is it that I’m not pretty enough for you?’

‘It’s not like that!’ Sakura freed herself from the woman’s grip and looked around the room, wondering how the hell she had gotten herself into this position yet again.

‘Don’t play the virtuous, Captain Kinomoto!’ Daidouji clasped the boy’s shoulders, making him turn to face her. ‘Unless… unless you don’t like women.’

Sakura raised an eyebrow. ‘What did you say?’

‘Well, there are men who prefer other men.’

Sakura tilted her head with a creased brow, wondering how that worked. Then she shook her head. She didn’t have time to think about that now.

The concubine smirked with a daring, knowing look in her bluish eyes. ‘For what other reason would you reject me, then?’

‘Well, because…’ Sakura ran her hands through her short hair, then she crossed her arms, closing her eyes and trying to calm down enough to come up with a reason that didn’t involve telling the truth.

‘You don’t need to be afraid,’ Sakura widened her eyes at hearing the soft voice talking into her ear. She whirled, taking a step back without taking her eyes away from Daidouji.

With practised movements, the concubine let loose the sash at her waist and undid the collar of her hanfu, letting the cloth slip from her shoulders to the ground.

Sakura felt her cheeks burning and stepped back, hugging the wall behind her. She covered her face with her hands, avoiding to look at the naked woman in front of her.

Daidouji went to the young Captain and delicately took his hands, pulling them away from his face so that he would look at her. ‘Come…’

‘I’ve already told you that I won’t,’ Sakura said under her breath and stepped to the side, extricating herself from the concubine’s hands.

‘Damn you, boy!’ the woman cursed, getting her clothes from the floor to cover her nudity. ‘What’s wrong with you? Know that I’ll tell every officer that lies down with me that you’re a…’

‘I’m a woman...’ Sakura blurted out, making the concubine freeze and stare at her with wide eyes.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

‘What… what did you say?’ The raven-haired concubine just stared at Sakura, as if she had suddenly grown a second head.

‘I’m a woman, Miss Daidouji,’ she repeated after clearing her voice; it seemed that even her normal voice was coming out a bit hoarse by the exertion of roughening it for so long.

Daidouji blinked a couple of times. ‘Is that a joke?’ she forced a smile, dressing her hanfu and closing it securely.

‘No, I’m afraid not…’ Sakura sagged her shoulder a bit and opened the top of her uniform, allowing the concubine to see the rim of the sash she used to compress her breasts. ‘I’m a woman, pretending to… living as a man.’

‘Dear me! I’ve never heard of something like this,’ Daidouji covered her mouth, trying to wrap her head around that new development. She took a few hesitant steps toward Sakura, looking her closely; then, she looked at the tight cloth around the soldier’s chest. ‘How… how can you endure this?’

'It was that or becoming a… a…’ Sakura averted her eyes, unable to finish the sentence without it sounding insulting.

‘A concubine?’

‘Yes,’ the green-eyed girl nodded, closing her garment again, avoiding to face the concubine.

They remained in silence for quite a long time. Sakura stepped away and went to the window where she stood, watching the movement on the streets. Her next step would depend entirely on what Daidouji decided to do. She hated that her future was, once again, in the hands of a total stranger.

If the concubine decided to reveal her secret to the General, Sakura would have little time to try and escape The Forbidden City. She regretted now not taking steps to secure her possessions somewhere at hand if the need to flee ever rose, but knew that she couldn’t risk going back to her quarters to get them.

If she failed to escape, her sentence would be severe. The penalties for her crimes was, ultimately, death. She’d be lucky if her only punishment were beheading. That’d be fast, at least. Now, if they deemed it necessary to torture her first… she shivered at the thought. Regardless of what they decided, she was certain of one thing: General Li would, undoubtedly, personally volunteer to carry on the sentence. She could even see him with that sadistic grin on his face in her mind’s eyes.

Daidouji stopped beside her, delicately holding her hand with a fixed gaze. ‘You’re so brave!’ she said, gently resting her hand on Sakura’s cheek. ‘And you became a Captain!’ She couldn’t help but laugh.

Sakura released the breath she hadn’t even noticed to be holding. ‘Please, don’t tell the General about it. He would…’

‘Oh, don’t you worry! Your secret's safe with me,’ the concubine giggled, with a dismissive hand-waving. ‘So, tell me… what’s your real name, “Captain-ness” Kinomoto?’

The Captain chuckled at the little jest. 'My name’s Sakura.'

'Sakura? That’s a beautiful name! Are you Japanese? That’s how Yinghua - the cherry flower - is called in Japan,’

Sakura shook her head, in denial. ‘My father was a Japanese officer. I received this name because that’s how my mother told the caretakers at the orphanage to call me.’

The concubine nodded in understanding. It wasn’t much hard to guess how the girl’s life had been, growing up.

‘And what’s your name?’ Sakura inquired, changing the subject.

'I’m Tomoyo. I’m Japanese, but I haven’t been to my birthplace since childhood,’ she explained with a tight-lipped smile.

‘Is it true what the General said? That you’ve been to the West…’

‘It is… And, oh, the things I’ve seen and done…’ Tomoyo hummed, with a smile.

Sakura seemed to glow with excitement as she started to ask question after question. In no time, they were chatting as old friends. It had been so long since Sakura could relax and just be herself. She really missed that: laughing so openly and talking with her own voice.

Tomoyo revealed herself a pleasant company. She was a bright and educated lady who had been thrown in that life when her husband left her in Bordeaux, selling her to pay his own gambling debts. She became a courtesan in Europe - an exotic beauty from the East - and made the best of it, buying her own way around many kingdoms, “d'un cabaret à l'autre” , until she ended up in The Forbidden City.

Unfortunately, China wasn’t as receptive to that kind of independence in a woman, but she had been able to buy the brothel, using Feng Shan - an illiterate vagrant she found on the streets - as a  middleman. She was known as a favourite among many high-ranking Imperial officers, General Xue Liang being one of the most prominent.

In exchange, Sakura told her about her own life, her childhood and her adventures as a soldier.

‘Amazing! It’s really unbelievable!’ Tomoyo watched the Captain-girl, feeling slack-jawed. ‘I imagine that even simple things as taking a bath must be dangerous, right?’

‘Yes, it is. Since we were relocated to The Forbidden City, I got my own quarters as a Captain and I can lock my door, at least. But even then, the General still got into a habit of getting in uninvited, somehow.’

Tomoyo rested her chin on a hand. ‘Can you imagine what would happen if he ever found out?’

Sakura took a deep breath, feeling a shiver go up her spine. She sat straight in the chair. ‘He’ll certainly make a point of executing me himself,’ she mentioned, tittering nervously.

The concubine fidgeted on her bed, playing with her long hair. ‘That’s so risky, Sakura. I’d be scared to death all the time.’

‘That’s exactly how I feel. Scared to death,’ Sakura leant back, looking up for a few moments; but, then, a satisfied grin appeared on her face. ‘But it’s so wonderful to read and write,’ She sighed, dreamily. ‘I’m studying about arithmetics, science, engineering and strategy. I could never do that as a woman! Nor could I get away with speaking my mind,’ she shook her head, remembering the argument she had with Li before he dragged her there. He had dismissed her opinion, but she was still able to say some of her thoughts.

Tomoyo remained in silence for a while, just watching the girl sitting across from her in the room. Now that she knew the truth, it was hard to think of Sakura as the heroic Captain Kinomoto.

‘The General really cares about you, you know...’ she saw as the girl’s demeanour suddenly changed: she crossed her arms and the green eyes kept shifting around the room as Sakura seemed to be looking for something to say.

At last, her eyes fixed on the woman in the bed. ‘Why… why do you say that?’

‘He never brought anyone here before. He’s always come alone, always introverted and reserved in public,’ she explained, regarding Sakura’s reaction. ‘But with you, he was all chatty and couldn’t stop picking on you. Mostly, because he said you were a friend. I’ve never heard of him calling anyone a friend before.’

Sakura heaved a sigh and stood up, turning her back on Tomoyo. ‘I’d be just another bitch if I were a woman,’ she turned to face the concubine again and shook her head, wearing a derisive smile as a mask.

Tomoyo narrowed her eyes, noticing the glittering green eyes. ‘You are the green-eyed girl from Shanghai.’

It wasn’t a question, Sakura noticed. She hadn’t gotten into many details when telling Tomoyo about being sold to a brothel and running away to enlist in the Army. It wasn’t an easy topic to talk about.

‘You really did a number on him,’ Tomoyo said, taking her silence for an affirmative answer. ‘Both as a woman and as a man.’

‘What?’ Sakura blinked, dumbfounded.

‘Well, didn’t you hear what he said?’ she opened a slow smile. ‘He was smitten by you, said you were beautiful!’

Sakura shook her head again and started pacing around the room with her hands in her pockets. ‘That’s not enough reason for me to stop hating him, nor is the fact that he seemed concerned about what he would do to me if I hadn’t resisted.’

It was clear to Tomoyo that she had mixed feelings about the subject. Sakura respected Li; admired him, even, to some extent, despite the fact that he hurt her before.

‘He seemed to really regret whatever had happened between you,’ she approached Sakura, stopping in front of her to halt her pacing. ‘Or what would’ve happened if you weren’t so headstrong,’ she shook her head with a smile. ‘I don’t think he can begin to imagine just how headstrong you are.’

Sakura leant over the back of the chair she had been sitting and faced the concubine. ‘Hopefully, he’ll never know. It’s actually better that he keeps believing the girl died or that she’s living as an indigent in Shanghai.’

Tomoyo tilted her head, chewing on her bottom lip. ‘It wouldn’t surprise me, in the case you ever found yourselves near Shanghai again, if he decided to search for her.’

‘What makes you say that?’ she increased the pitch in her voice.

The concubine’s purplish-blue eyes gleamed gently as she looked at Sakura.  Tomoyo sat on her bed again, crossing her legs. ‘One of the advantages of working for so long seducing and pleasuring men is that we learn a lot about them.’

Sakura twisted her mouth, unbelieving.

‘They can be very complex, you know? Hiding their frailties under a layer of violence and arrogance.’

Sakura had found them to be simpletons. ‘Men are cowards. Egocentric. Fearful. Insecure.’

Tomoyo laughed. ‘Yes, having a rapport with such a man made you understand him quite well, too.’

‘Rapport with… What are you talking about?’

The concubine giggled. ‘You’re General Li’s only friend. How much time a day do you spend together? Eight? Ten?’ She leant forward, sitting up with a raised eyebrow. ‘More than that?’

Sakura’s hands gripped tightly onto the back of the chair. ‘I’m his pupil. We work together. It’s different.’

Tomoyo covered her mouth to suppress a snigger and shrugged. ‘If you really prefer to face it like this, be my guest. I won’t be the one to open your eyes.’

Sakura rolled her eyes with an exasperated sigh. ‘The General is a conceited and arrogant man. Big-headed, that’s what he is. He just must be feeling bad about a girl who probably died after he tried to break her.’

‘Mark my words, Sakura, he’ll look for her -- for you. Avoid Shanghai at any cost, because if he goes there, he’ll try to find the girl to make up for what he’s done.’

‘How can you be so sure?’ she asked, defiantly.

Tomoyo flashed her another gentle smile. ‘Because he’s big-headed, like you said, and would never admit to making a mistake unless he was serious about it. Besides, the General is painfully honest. He says exactly what he thinks and doesn’t waste his breath with half-truths.’

Sakura widened her eyes and straightened herself, releasing the chair. She turned over to the window once more, avoiding to face the concubine. They remained in silence for several minutes and Sakura started massaging her temples, slouching against the wall.

‘Why don’t you relax for a while?’ Tomoyo suggested with a deep sigh.

Sakura looked at her over her shoulder. ‘Relax?’

‘The General will only get out of the room by the morning,’ Tomoyo explained. ‘He always has a lot of steam to blow off when he comes to see us.’

Sakura crossed her arms, gritting her teeth. ‘And what should I do till then? Go back to the palace by myself?’

The concubine jumped to her feet, a smile lighting up her face. ‘How long has it been since you took a bath without any worries?’

Sakura furrowed her brows. ‘Huh?’

‘Take a long and relaxing bath. Let’s pretend that we spent the night together. That way, no one would suspect you. Tomorrow, when the General leave, you can go with him.’

‘Could I really do that?’ Sakura tilted her head back, longing for a lengthy, soothing bath.

‘Of course, you can, sweetie. I’ll help you as much as I can. I can’t let your bravery go unnoticed.’

‘Oh, thank you!’ Sakura stepped closer to Tomoyo, hands on her heart.

‘You don’t need to thank me,’ she crinkled her eyes and nose. ‘We’re friends now.’

Sakura nodded, eagerly. It would be heavenly to find a friend in Tomoyo. Maybe, that way, she could actually keep her sanity.


 

Sakura was in one of the training rooms with the General during their daily hand-to-hand practice section. Her body was starting to go numb by the many hits she had received.

‘So?’ he asked suddenly, watching the breathless soldier in front of him.

‘I know! My form’s sloppy and my left side is open,’ she muttered, going back into position.

Xiao Lang smirked and dropped his hands to relax. ‘I’m not talking about the drill. How was your night with the French?’

‘She’s not French. She’s Japanese,’ Sakura replied, annoyed that he was actually breaching the subject.

‘Whatever!’ He disregarded her comment and grinned, knowingly. ‘What else?’

Sakura thanked the fact that her face was, probably, already pink by the exercises. ‘She’s pretty.’

‘Pretty? Is that all you have to say, Kinomoto?’ The General opened his shirt to refresh himself.

Sakura averted her eyes from his exposed torso, drying her own sweat with a towel. ‘And what else should I say, Sir?’ She said through a hot and dry throat and reached for her waterskin to find some refreshment.

The General broke into laughter. ‘She isn’t just “pretty”. She can drive a man crazy in bed.’

‘So you’ve slept with her…’ she voiced, regretting it immediately. She didn’t want to imagine him with her new friend.

‘What high-ranking officer had not?’ he smirked.

‘Daidouji’s a wonderful and kind woman,’ She shrugged with one shoulder.

‘Talking like that, it looks like you want to marry her. Oh, don’t tell me that you’re in love with her, already! After just one night,’ He shook with laughter at the sight of his pupil rolling his eyes, but then he stared at Kinomoto with a concerned look. ‘I know that you’ve been talking to Princess Mei Ling, boy. I thought I said you shouldn’t get close to Imperial Dames.’

Sakura creased her brow, staring back at the man. ‘The Princess is a smart, sensible kid and I respect her, Sir.’

The General frowned, making her uncomfortable. ‘The Princess is in love with you. It wouldn’t be difficult for you to seduce her, but don’t be idiotic,’ he warned, narrowing his eyes. ‘The Emperor is intent on marrying her to a Mongolian prince to avoid a war with them. That’s a diplomatic matter, Kinomoto. If you’re in love with her, forget it!’

Sakura straightened herself up. ‘I’m not in love with her; neither is she with me. We talk. Sometimes we share a table at the Library while reading,’ she snorted and shook her head. ‘Honestly, you see wickedness everywhere, Sir.’ Hearing that kind of warning from him was ironical. She wasn’t the one who walked around undressing women with her eyes.

‘Are you in love with Princess Mei Ling or with the pretty Japanese concubine, Kinomoto?’ He waggled his eyebrows, playfully. ‘Or both?’

‘Do you even know what it means to be in love, General?’ She couldn’t help asking.

‘I’m never falling in love, kid. And let me teach you something else, while at it: this love thing is just romantic crap invented to fill women’s heads,’ he clarified with an enigmatic smile.

‘My parents fell in love. My mother defied tradition because of my father,’ she stirred him up.

He raised an eyebrow. ‘And where are your parents now?’

Sakura kept quiet, not knowing what to answer to that.

‘Your father ran away with the rest of the Japanese Army, and your mother was probably sent to a Buddhist temple to hide the fact that she was defiled before marriage,’ he continued, mercilessly. ‘Or might have become a concubine, or was killed by her parents to hide the shame and dishonour.’

She felt every cell in her body burst in fury. Not at the General, exactly. She knew that he didn’t hold his punches when entering into an argument, being too competitive to easily accept defeat. She was the same, actually, and was thankful most of the time that he didn’t punish her for speaking her own mind.

No, her rage was directed at the fact that he was probably right about her mother’s destiny.

Her lack of response usually would indicate that the General had won that round, but he didn’t open his customary grin. Looking at the green flames coming out of his pupil’s eyes, Xiao Lang recognised that his harsh words might’ve gone a bit too far, this time.

Sakura took a step ahead, glaring at him. ‘What you said about my mother’s probable destiny, General, while correct, just shows how backwards, unjust and cowardly our society is. A society where parents prefer to see their child dead than respecting her choice for a companion,’ she lashed out.

He straightened up, getting tired of Kinomoto’s tirade about women. The sooner the boy learnt how things worked, the better. ‘That’s what happens when women lose their minds thinking that love is real,’ he sneered, mockingly. ‘They forget their place.’

‘I’m getting tired of you and your arrogance!’ Sakura finally snapped, letting out what had been stuck in her throat for months.

He scoffed at her. ‘Well, and what are you waiting for? Go ahead and leave. Go back to your old life as a woman-protecting love-believing coward!’

‘And you can keep hiding behind this mask of pride and spite when in truth you’re nothing but a woman-despising idiot, whose closest relationship is the one you keep with your subordinates because it’s the only way you can feel in control of something!’ she was seething, her face flushed and eyes squinting. ‘Boo-hoo, look at me! The great General Li; I can’t step out of my father’s shadow!’

Xiao Lang widened his eyes and bared his teeth – now it was getting personal. ‘Careful with the insubordination, Captain! I am your Commanding Officer.’

‘That’s what happens when boys lose their minds thinking they can outgrow their fathers by trying to overcome their absence and indifference,’ she jeered at him, parroting his earlier remark.

‘That’s enough, Kinomoto!’ he thundered, springing at Sakura to punch her.

Sakura dodged his first attacks, escaping the General’s ferocious blows. There was a peculiar clarity that took over her during fights and, after a few minutes of fighting the General, she was entirely under control, again.

She noticed that he seemed strangely hazy-minded, a sudden frenzy flaring in his eyes that covered a deeper darkness. She had unwittingly hit him too close to home for comfort.

They fought to exhaustion, even if Sakura felt the brunt of it after focusing on defending herself.

As sudden as his outburst began, it ended and the General let himself fall to the ground, winded. He laid flat on the floor, resting his hand on his forehead while staring at the ceiling.

Sakura kept watching him from a distance, till she was certain he had calmed down.

Xiao Lang heaved a sigh. ‘You’re right. I can’t escape my father’s shadow,’ he said not looking at his pupil. ‘And I did have issues with him while growing up.’

She remained in silence, watching that strong man lying down as if he had been defeated. It was inevitable to sympathise with that broken warrior. Which was only made worse by the fact that such a man would hate knowing she felt that way.

She got closer to him, sitting on the floor. ‘That’s why having children shouldn’t be about them honouring us. That should be a natural consequence,’ she told him with a quiet voice. ‘You say that love is unreasonable, Sir, but what is it that bonds parents and children together, then?’

Xiao Lang shifted her way, his mask of haughtiness nowhere in sight, just a deep-rooted sorrow in his amber eyes. ‘My father was a busy man, he couldn’t lose his time with me. The Empire has to come first.’

‘In that case, it’s not much different than being raised as an orphan, is it? Why getting married and having children, at all?’ she inquired, breathing out heavily. ‘You joined the Imperial Army to be close to him, didn’t you? You were only eleven; you were still a kid.’

‘You’re right…’ he saw no reason to lie. ‘It didn’t work, though. Even living in the palace, I hardly saw him.’

‘That’s why you worked so hard to stand out. To make him proud, to be worthy of his praise,’ she deduced, leaning back on her elbows and closing her eyes. She thought of Mr Yang’s kind words at every little accomplishment she ever had and could understand how he must have felt.

Xiao Lang didn’t immediately answer. Instead, he just watched his pupil with rapt attention, wondering how that dainty kid – still away from being a man – got him to open up like that. It was an odd sensation, the way he just felt compelled to talk about things he wanted to forget.

The General shook his head, looking away from the skinny boy. ‘I guess that would be the natural development of events, wouldn’t it? But not to my father. No, Sir; just that wasn’t enough for General Li Shang.’

That got Sakura’s attention and she opened her eyes, turning to face him. ‘It wasn’t?

He shook his head in denial. ‘No matter how much I was noteworthy, he still treated me with the same lack of interest,’ he shrugged. ‘At least, when he died, I stopped doing things to prove myself to him and began doing things for myself.’

Sakura averted her eyes. ‘With all respect to your father’s memory, General, but it doesn’t make sense. A military man, especially one from a military family, would always be honoured with a child who’s standing out in following his ancestors’ footsteps.’

Xiao Lang sat up, cleaning his forehead with his shirt’s sleeve. ‘Yeah, I couldn’t understand either. His attitude toward me never made much sense, especially when I was his only son. My mother had no other children, and his consorts only had girls. Anyway, this is in the past. He’s dead, and there’s nothing else for me to prove.’

She straightened herself, still not looking at him. ‘You’re an excellent officer, Sir. The Emperor acknowledges it, and is very honoured to have you in his ranks.’

The General gazed at his pupil, trying not to smile. ‘Are you sweet-talking me out of pity, Kinomoto?’

She glanced him sideways. ‘I’m speaking the truth. You’re an arrogant man, bordering on tyrannical, in possession of a huge list of faults that would certainly make you mad if I began to recite here,’ she said honestly, making him shake with laughter. ‘But you are an exceptional warrior. Your actions saved the Emperor’s life countless times. So, no, I’m not sweet-talking you, General. I’m just reminding you of the facts.’

He accepted those words at face value and stood up. ‘This talk never happened Kinomoto.’

‘What talk, Sir?’ She didn’t even blink.

The man slapped her on the shoulder, in camaraderie. ‘If you were my child, I’d be proud of you, Kinomoto. I’m proud to be your instructor.’

She widened her eyes, feeling a lump in her throat. ‘Thank you, Sir. I hope never to disappoint you.’

‘I’m sure you won’t,’ he assured, walking away.

Sakura kept an eye on his retreating back, till he crossed the threshold leaving her alone. She opened a brief smile, feeling a warmth surge in her chest at what he had said.

She sighed, feeling gloomy. Deep down, she’d like him to respect her for who she really was. It was unfortunate to know that he’d change his tone if he ever found out the truth.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

 

 

Sakura found herself at the Library. She sighed, exasperated, leaning over the books while resting her head on her hand. She was tired. Bruised, too. It seemed that the more she learned, the harder the General pushed her. She was having some difficulty with the sword-fighting lately. The blade she wielded now was too heavy and hindered her movements, so she was trying -- with little success -- to come up with specifications for a new, lighter sword, one that suited her better. Dammit! She didn’t want to ask the General for help.

She heard some muffled steps closing in and scented a familiar jasmine perfume. The hint of a smile drew itself on her lips, as she looked up, watching Princess Mei Ling approach her table. It took her only one look at the Princess’s sad countenance to understand that there was something wrong.

Sakura stood up to greet Mei Ling according to protocol and was caught by surprise when the young Dame, instead of taking a seat on the other side of the table, as per usual -- keeping an adequate distance between them -- stopped right beside her. Too close for comfort.

Sakura took a step back, stumbling over her chair. She was about to turn around and push the chair aside when the Princess held onto her, hugging her tightly while breaking down in tears.

Sakura felt a lump in her throat when she grabbed the whimpering girl’s arms, pulling herself apart. She cast a worried glance around, looking for Mr. Wan and could breathe out in relief at not seeing him around.

‘Your Highness…’ Sakura called her, gently. ‘What happened?’

Mei Ling raised her eyes to face her. She had gotten used to doing that, knowing that the young Captain would never chastise her for doing so.

‘My father… He’s finally decided…’ she said, weeping.  ‘I’ll be heading to Mongolia in a few days. I’m a married woman.’

Sakura tightened her lips together, not knowing what to say to her. She already knew of the Emperor’s intentions. The young Princess’s marriage would seal an alliance with the other kingdom, avoiding a presently unsustainable war. As much as she disliked the fact that Mei Ling had no voice, no say in the matter; as a soldier, Sakura understood the diplomatic necessity of it.

‘I’m… I’m sorry, Your Highness, but try and see the bright side. You were so eager for your wedding, weren’t you? I just hope the Prince’s a good husband.’

‘But it’s you I love!’ Mei Ling cried out, blinking back tears and clutching at the Captain’s uniform.

A charged silence fell over them both. Sakura blinked a couple of times, trying to understand what the Princess had said. All the while, Mei Ling was praying that the Captain would just take her by the hand, fleeing The Forbidden City.

Sakura gritted her teeth at the young Dame’s sobbing. Looking away, she kept trying to get herself free from the Princess’s tight grip. Dammit! She would like to clear things up with her friend -- she’d never thought the Princess could develop romantic affections toward her, but then again, she should have seen it coming. Touya was, probably, the first and only “man” to treat her with respect, as an equal.

‘Your Highness,’ she whispered, tenderly. ‘You must be confused.’

‘No!’ Mei Ling interjected, shaking her head. ‘I want to be your wife! I want to marry you.’

Sakura took a deep breath, thinking how to get out of that situation. She didn’t want to sadden her even more, but couldn’t tell her the truth. It’d be dangerous, too dangerous. She shook her head, unable to find a solution, till it dawned on her.

‘Unfortunately, Your Highness, I’m in love with someone else. And I’m bound by a promise to my beloved.’ She prayed that the Gods had mercy on her soul and shielded her from Hell for one more lie.

‘I-In… In love?’ Mei Ling stammered, wide-eyed and taking a step back as if slapped, but without letting go of the soldier’s clothes.

‘Forgive me, Your Highness, if I ever made you think that my intentions lied elsewhere,’ Sakura apologised, bowing her head. ‘Besides, I know my place. I’m a low ranking officer and would never dream of courting a princess. I don’t even have the stand to properly court my heart’s desire.’

‘I don’t care about rankings or standings. Let’s elope, Sir!’ the Princess didn’t even hesitate.

Sakura shook her head, suppressing a mirthless smile. That young lady didn’t know what she was asking for. She had no idea of how life was outside, having spent her whole life sheltered inside the castle walls. She had never been hungry or cold; had never been pushed beyond her own limits just to survive. The whole notion of eloping with the young man she was in love with was nothing more than a fanciful illusion. Supposing that they did run away, what then?

Though Sakura hated to admit it, the General was, at least, partially right when he said that love stories filled the heads of the women of the court with unpractical ideas. She still believed in love, but knew that it was worthless without a modicum degree of rationality.

‘And what about your fiancé? If the nuptial agreement is broken, it would entail a war that’ll endanger thousands of lives. But Your Highness already knows that, right?’

Mei Ling looked down, still crying and refusing to let go of the young Captain’s uniform. Sakura felt sorry for her. The laws of men would always treat women as bargaining chips.

Sakura rested her hand over the girl’s that held her uniform. ‘I know how strong you are. A daughter of the Son of Heaven must be someone very special; someone who would never run away from her responsibilities. Your Highness has a duty to fulfil for the good of your people.’

Mei Ling looked up; her eyes glistening with unshed tears.

‘The gods made you a daughter of the Emperor. Your responsibilities go beyond any romantic fantasies.’

The princess frowned. ‘What I feel for you isn’t just a fantasy.’

‘But it should be! I know my place and, honestly, you must know how important Your Highness's position is in all of China. Unfortunately, in a position like yours, there’s no room for self-interest. Your Highness needs to think of your people first and foremost.’

Sakura knew she was being harsh on the girl, but Mei Ling had to understand just how frail her position was and how dangerous it could become. She couldn’t afford to pretend to be a common girl looking for love. The breach of such a contract would bring serious consequences and endanger the Empire.

Sakura could see the understanding starting to dawn on her through her damp eyes and sighed. She wasn’t unsympathetic to the girl’s feelings, but the young Dame’s fate was out of reach. ‘The Heavens chose you, Princess.’

‘And why can’t I choose who to love?’ she asked with a shaky voice.

‘Because your duty dictates that you love your people above any man who might be lucky enough to reside in your heart,’ Sakura said gently, thinking that her own duty resided in protecting the Empire above the feelings of her friend.

They remained in silence for a few heartbeats, until Mei Ling closed her eyes and heaved a sigh, finally letting go of Sakura’s uniform.

The Princess opened her eyes, blinking away their humidity and lifting her chin. ‘Know this, Captain Kinomoto: you’ll always be in my heart. I just hope my husband might be half the man that you are.’

Sakura cleared her throat and took a step back, placing the chair between them. ‘I’m flattered, Your Highness. I hope your husband to be an honoured man, deserving of you; and that he’ll respect you as the special and intelligent woman you are.’

Mei Ling opened a saddened smile. ‘I also pray that you’ll be very happy with your loved one.’

Sakura nodded in acknowledgement. ‘Thank you, Your Highness.’

‘She’s a very lucky woman,’ Mei Ling whispered, before turning around and walking away.

Sakura bowed respectfully, watching the retreating back of the Princess and knowing they wouldn’t see each other again. She felt somewhat guilty about rejecting Mei Ling’s feelings like that instead of telling her the truth, but she knew that it’d be safer -- for both of them -- that way.

When the Princess left the library, Sakura was finally able to breathe easily again. She pulled the chair back into position near the table and sat down, running her hands through her hair and taking notice of its longer length. Absent-mindedly, she tied it up tightly, in the same simple fashion some of the soldiers did. It had been Tomoyo’s idea to adopt a longer hairstyle and, despite being hesitant at first, Sakura had to admit that it was nice to wear it long again. Even if the shorter cut had been a lot more practical to maintain.

‘Well done, Kinomoto,’ She was startled by Li’s voice, feeling her heart in her mouth as she turned to look at him.

Xiao Lang approached her displaying a smug smile and sat on the chair at the other side of the table. ‘You conducted yourself properly when dealing with someone like the Princess.’

Sakura seated straight, crossing her arms and looked at him with narrowed eyes. ‘Have you acquired the habit of eavesdropping, now, Sir?’

He smirked, leaning back with his hands behind his head. ‘If I hadn’t, that tattler librarian would’ve caught you in a rather compromising situation.’

She groaned and looked down with a slight shake of her head. ‘I wondered about Mr. Wan’s whereabouts during all that…’

‘I made him a request for a very hard to find book…’ he stated, with a self-satisfied look. ‘It was an urgent matter!’

She breathed out and faced him, once more. ‘Then I should probably thank you, Sir. It wouldn’t be wise to have him interrupting us.’

‘I noticed that. For what is worth, I believe you acted correctly by reminding the Princess of her duties,’ he smugly raised an eyebrow. ‘Didn’t I tell you that this love thing just messes with women heads?’

Sakura remained silent for a moment, taking notice of his amusement; then she gave him a quizzical look, which made him frown. ‘I don’t think you completely understood what had just occurred here, General. It was precisely that “love thing” that gave the Princess the courage to fulfil her duty, in spite of whatever she’d claimed to feel for me.’

‘Humph,’ he scoffed, bothered by her statement.

‘That “love thing” for her people and the Empire will ensure that Her Highness braves a marriage with a man she never saw before, in a foreign court, surrounded by strangers,’ she pointed out, steepling her fingers while leaning against her chair. ‘My only consolation is knowing that, because you’ve alerted me to His Majesty’s plans for the Princess all those months ago, I had time to make her start studying about the Mongolian language and culture.’

Xiao Lang flashed a big smile in his pupil direction. ‘You keep surprising me, boy!’ he shook his head and slapped his thighs, before standing up. ‘Anyway, I came here to inform you that we’ll be departing from The Forbidden City tomorrow at dawn with a new troop.’

She tilted her head, a bit confused for not hearing about that before, but only nodded in acknowledgement. ‘Alright.’

‘You’ve been a Captain for a year, already. It’s time you got your own unit to train,’ he mentioned, making her smile. ‘I want you to focus on training these men to deal with mortars and other weapons. We need abler soldiers, with a deeper knowledge of explosives, so it’s better if we’re away from the city.’

‘And where are we going?’ she inquired.

Xiao Lang walked around the table and stopped beside her, leaning against the table with crossed arms. ‘South.’

‘South? Where exactly South?’ she asked, noticing that something about that situation was bothering him.

‘Near Shanghai,’ he sighed, exasperated and shook his head, looking straight at the Captain. ‘We’ll be escorting Prince Yue to the Imperial residence there so that he can take care of some… Imperial matters.’

‘Imperial matters? In Shanghai?’ she mocked, finally understanding the unforeseen mission. ‘And he’s requested your presence by name, has he?’

‘At the last minute, yes,’ he shook his head with a wry smile. ‘As you well know, the Prince is an idiot, but...’ he shrugged, rolling his eyes and uncrossed his arms. ‘I’ll turn his imposition into an opportunity. There’s an important firework factory near Shanghai, we’ll use their powder to assemble some dummy explosives. Plus, I’ve got a few ideas I’d like to test.’

That got Sakura’s attention. ‘Ideas?’

‘I’ve been thinking of ways we can improve our cannons while reducing their size for easier transportation,’ the General mentioned, looking directly into Sakura’s green eyes. ‘But if we’re going to test that, it has to be far from The Forbidden City.’

She flashed him a smile, feeling excitement bubble up inside of her. ‘Now… you’re the one who’s surprised me, General.’

‘Well… If I’m bound to leave my post with less than a day's notice due to that whimsical idiot, then I should try and make the best of it for the sake of the Empire, don’t you agree?’

‘Oh, absolutely!’


 

Captain Kinomoto proudly rode beside General Li.

They’d just left Prince Yue at the Imperial residence that morning along with half the convoy that departed from The Forbidden City the former week. The General made a point of ordering their new recruits to set up camp as far away from the Prince as possible without hindering their training.

Sakura couldn’t help thinking that, if the General stayed too close, he’d feel tempted to blow the Prince up. Especially after the hellish trip the overbearing man put them through. If she had been on the verge of losing her patience with the childish man, she could only imagine how hard it was for the General to control himself. The Prince just couldn’t pass an opportunity to try demeaning Li, as if the General didn’t abhor the nobility and everything that had to do with it enough. Xiao Lang hated when people implied that his relationship with Wei was due to him trying to quit the military sphere where he belonged.

Right now, they were going back to camp, along with another ten soldiers, after buying barrels of black powder to work out with the troop. Sakura had taken a look at Li’s ideas and was rather excited to begin testing them, but the General was oddly silent.

Suddenly, General Li stopped his horse.

Sakura got in a state of alert, wondering what was the problem as she pulled the reins of her own mount so that it would stop beside his.

‘You go ahead with the men, Kinomoto. I have some business to attend to,’ he said, flatly, making her frown.

She looked away from him and felt as if someone had punched her in the gut at realising where they were. Not far ahead, she saw the outlines of Shanghai, just as she remembered; just as the city used to appear in her nightmares.

She looked at him with irritation. ‘What are you planning to do, General?’

‘That’s private business, Captain,’ he said, narrowing his eyes and pointing his horse toward the city. ‘I won’t be long. I’ll meet you at camp before nightfall.’

Sakura saw him set off at a fast lope, before turning to face the soldiers with a nagging feeling at a corner of her head.

Ever since the start of the war against the Huns, Shanghai had become known as a grey area, unruly, overflowing with conspirators, thugs, panders and opium dealers. It was too damn risky for the General to go to that place by himself. Especially when the city guards had orders to make the rounds in teams. It had even been Li’s recommendation in one of those meetings he loved to complain about.

Dammit! Xiao Lang was an intelligent man, so why the hell was he going against his own orders and entering the crime hub of the Empire? It was even worse that he was wearing his full garb. Was that man so arrogant as to consider himself invulnerable?

Sakura heaved a sigh and shook her head, thinking that she would likely regret that later. She called forth the most experienced soldier around and ordered him to take the load to camp.

Then she spurred her horse to follow the General.


 

Xiao Lang approached the City Gate and pulled the reins, slowing his steed’s pace to a trot. He looked around, furrowing his eyebrows while trying to remember where exactly that damn brothel was located.

He sighed, heavily. He was sick and tired of having that unfinished business hanging over his head. It was even giving him nightmares. He, not for the first time, thanked the gods that the girl, whoever she was, had been stubborn and headstrong enough to resist his advances. As well as the fact that he’d been sufficiently drunk not to pose a bigger menace for her.

What he hated the most about China’s invaders was the fact that they often raped the women of every village they occupied. He didn’t want to be that rude with Kinomoto, either, but didn’t want him along for what he needed to do. Especially when he actually believed that the boy’s mother had been abused by a Japanese soldier. He understood that the boy wanted to validate his own origin, but that love thing didn’t exist.

The General was startled at the sight of the boy, as he seemed to materialise out of thin air beside him, pulling taut at his horse’s reins. For a couple seconds, he just stared at the Captain in consternation.

‘What are you doing here?’ Xiao Lang demanded, annoyed. ‘Didn’t I order you to get the cargo back to camp?’

‘I left Chiang in charge. I trust him to get to camp without incidents.’

‘That’s not what I asked,’ he hissed.

‘I came to back you up,’ she stated, as if it was obvious, which, all things considered, actually was. ‘You’re a high-ranking officer of the Empire wandering around Shanghai. This is a lawless city. It was reckless of you to have come alone.’

‘I don’t need a bodyguard, Kinomoto! Turn around and follow your orders,’ he growled at his second in command.

Sakura was about to protest, but the General, suddenly, dismounted, pulling his steed by its reins and walked to a back alley. She widened her eyes, watching as he walked away from her and looked from over his head to where he was going. She frowned at seeing him approach a group of vagrant beggars and got down from her horse, following him.

Xiao Lang knelt down in front of a woman with long tawny hair, trying to see her face. He heaved a sigh and shook his head, getting on his feet again. The indigents got close to him, asking for money and he took a few coins from his pouch, giving them alms before turning away, still pulling his horse.

He scowled at Kinomoto when they crossed paths. ‘It sucks to screw up when you’re drunk.’

‘What are you talking about, General?’ she asked, taking a second look at the woman, before turning around to keep up with him.

‘I thought she was someone else, but she didn’t have smaragdine eyes,’ he mentioned, gazing at his pupil’s wide eyes and open mouth. He, then, shook his head as to dissipate his own thoughts and kept moving. That issue was really consuming him and he needed to put an end to it.

Sakura watched his back as he left, suddenly remembering Tomoyo’s words that first night. ‘Mark my words, Sakura, he’ll look for her – for you . Avoid Shanghai at any cost, because if he goes there, he’ll try to find the girl to make up for what he’s done.’

She shook her head, clutching the leather straps in her hand and forcing her legs to pursue him. Reason told her that Li would never look for her, especially not after all that time, even if Tomoyo had a point in saying that she knew how men thought.  So how was that possible? And, most importantly, why?

‘Because he’s big-headed, like you said, and would never admit to making a mistake unless he was serious about it,’ the concubine’s voice echoed in her head.

She had to keep calm and consider all the facts. Narrowing her eyes on the General’s retreating back, she wondered if he was actually trying to find her. Dammit! She couldn’t leave him alone in that city; if something happened to him, she’d never forgive herself. Besides, it would be better if she knew what he ended up finding out; if anything at all. If he, somehow, tracked her back to Yuhan and the Yangs, the discovery of her father’s name would put her in great danger.

Sakura hurried up, stopping at Li’s elbow and silently watched him for several minutes as he looked high and low for something or… someone.

‘Sir, it’s really not wise to roam over the city like this, especially in uniform…’ she forewarned him, once again, as they entered increasingly bleak, filthier and more marginalised alleyways.

‘Then you shouldn’t have come after me, but, now that you’re here, I can’t leave you alone, can I?’ he looked at her askance. ‘Stay close to me and…’ he shook his head, heaving a sigh. ‘And keep quiet. I have a headache.’

She straightened her back, treading decisively alongside with him. That was the first time the General openly admitted to being in any kind of pain and that made her anxious. She knew it was better to do as he said, but she couldn’t help herself for long.

‘I can see that you’re looking for something, Sir. If you tell me what, I could help you look for it, instead of just following around.’

The General stopped in his tracks, glaring at his pupil. ‘It’s the second direct order you disobey, Kinomoto. One more and I’ll demote you back to a simple soldier, do you hear me?’

She nodded, closing her mouth shut and he turned on his heels, proceeding with his search. Usually, she could get away with talking back to him when they were alone, but his bad mood meant today was not one of those days.

After a few more minutes of silence, she heard the General exhale, audibly.

‘You’re observant, so you might be able to help me,’ he conceded, massaging his temples. ‘Look for a young woman with long tawny brown hair and green eyes or the establishment of a “Quang something”. I want to get the hell out of this place as soon as possible.’

Sakura widened her eyes, unable to believe her own ears. It was one thing to conjecture about his reasons to be there, but hearing him admit to such a preposterous idea was unsettling. What was he thinking?

Resisting the urge to run her clammy hands through her hair, she held tightly to the reins, pulling her horse forth. She was torn between the fear of being discovered and concern about her General’s sanity. That was the least intelligent thing she had ever seen him do -- and that was saying a lot! She had to say something to bring him back to reason and give up the search for… Well, for her !

‘Sir,’ she called him after a while, having controlled herself enough to avoid stuttering.

‘You can search in silence, Kinomoto. This place is already too damn noisy…’ he replied, scowling at her.

She gave up, trying to say something lest she risked being punished. Sakura nervously wrung her hands, walking through the intricate maze created by Shanghai’s narrow streets after Li, when he suddenly stopped, almost making her bump against his back.

Sakura looked up, making out what had caught the General’s attention and recognised the place where her virtue had been sold to the same man standing by her side now.

She clenched her hands, her nails biting into her palms as she overcame the shudder that threatened to break her and evened her shallow breathing.  She had to keep her cool. She needed to be able to think with clarity. If she started to act strangely, the General would take notice. She was already inviting unwanted attention.

Taking a deep breath, she kept her chin up. She was a man now, a soldier -- a Captain. There was no rhyme nor reason for her to look down. Squaring her shoulders, she narrowed her eyes on the structure in front of them and, unbidden, her attention was drawn to the alleyway on the other side and up. She easily located the window she had used to flee. It was high -- it was really high! She was, indeed, desperate to get out of that room to risk climbing down using tied-up sheets.

‘It’s closed,’ the General grumbled, attracting her attention.

‘It’s still early,’ she gave him a dismissive shrug.

‘Though most of their activities happen at night, brothels in Shanghai remain open all the time,’ he explained, approaching the establishment’s door to read an official looking notification attached to it.

Sakura followed him to read the note and had to control herself to avoid grinning at its content. The place had been quarantined.

‘Dammit!’ he said through gritted teeth, walking around the building and looking through the windows for any sign of movement inside. He kept pacing around the alleyway, like a caged wolf, not knowing what to do.

‘Hum…’ Sakura hesitatingly drew his attention. ‘If you’re looking for a girl you met in there, Sir, she’s most certainly dead…’

The General spun around, facing Kinomoto with a terrifying scowl. ‘How can you be so sure?’

She gave him a one-sided shrug. ‘The place is quarantined, so the girl is dead. You must remember the pestilence that affected many of the men who had been in brothels in Shanghai. They died within the month.’

Xiao Lang shook his head and walked away from the building. ‘She had escaped from there, so she might not have come back. She was too headstrong…’

Sakura turned her eyes. He couldn’t even begin to imagine just how headstrong she was… Better yet, how headstrong she actually is. ‘Sir, if she became an indigent, doesn’t that just adds to the chances of her dying?’

‘As I said, she was too headstrong. She wouldn’t die that easily,’ he replied, seeing Kinomoto look at him with an arched eyebrow and those damn green eyes. ‘She hit me on the head and knocked me out. Me !’

Sakura looked away, scratching her neck. ‘Weren’t you, as you said before, drunk, Sir? It’d make it… huh, considerably easier for her to knock you unconscious, right?’

Xiao Lang took a  couple large steps toward her, making Sakura held out her arms in a defensive position.

‘You really have problems in keeping quiet, haven’t you? Just as it seems to be difficult for you to obey orders from your superior officer. You’re just as stubborn as…’ he pursed his lips and shook his head. ‘You either help me look -- in silence -- or go back to camp, Kinomoto.’

After saying that, Li turned around and went on in his search, the only thing said among them were Li’s frequent swearing, muttered under his breath. Sakura followed him around, watching from a distance every time he stopped thinking to have found the green-eyed girl.

As the time went by and the sun began to set, she felt more and more like knocking him out again and dragging him back to camp.

Sakura heard him sigh heavily, and it bothered her more than she’d like to admit that he sounded so… defeated. The sound was almost sad. She bit her lower lip, resisting the urge to talk while watching his large shoulders as he strode ahead of her.

She really had difficulty in remaining quiet around him, especially after all the time they spent together; after all the time he’d actually listened to what she had to say, to what she thought. It was hard for her now to heed his order to shut up. ‘What exactly are you hoping to do, Sir? What could you do?’

‘What could I do about what?’ he faced her, almost growling.

Sakura clenched her hands, not believing she was actually saying those things. ‘About that whore, Sir.’

‘She wasn’t a whore,’ he replied, heaving another tired sigh. ‘Why are you asking me that?’

‘Because, honestly, Sir, I believe you’re trying to fix something that can’t be fixed,’ she put it quite bluntly.

‘You can’t know that,’ he said, looking down and away. ‘I have some money with me. A good amount that I’ve been saving to give to her. Or…’ he shook his head, looking at her pleadingly. ‘What else could I do?’

Sakura held his gaze in silence for a few moments. ‘It’s been too long, Sir,’ she said, gently and looked down at her feet. ‘She’s probably dead and there’s nothing you can do.’

‘Maybe you’re right,’ he acknowledged. ‘But if that’s the case, I’ll try to find her family to compensate them.’

Sakura creased her brow and tilted her head. He couldn’t be serious! What was he thinking? Was he even thinking at all? But dammit if that hadn’t touched her on a sore spot.

Taking a deep breath, Sakura detached herself as best she could from the subject. ‘Sir, if she had a family, wouldn’t that make them the first ones to have sold her?’ looking back at him, she moved her hands restlessly. ‘Do you even know her name?’

‘That’s what I was trying to find out at the brothel,’ he clarified. ‘I’m certain that she wouldn’t be back there, but they might’ve known her name…’ he suddenly stopped, as if hit by something. ‘The brothel owner could’ve made a complaint about her disappearance. I might be able to find her name at the City Guard Office.’

‘And what will you ask? If they have any information about a girl you almost violated in a brothel over a year ago? See reason, Sir!’ she clenched her hands, taking a deep breath and trying to keep a calm façade at what she was about to say. ‘You’ll become a laughing stock, all because of a bitch...’

‘I already told you… she was not a bitch! And you stay out of my business, Kinomoto!’ he protested, storming off Shanghai streets.

Sakura marched around, beside him, all over the place that was not only noisy but reeked of moral decay, manure, urine and fumes. She vaguely remembered the awe she felt at entering that city the first time, on her way to the Matchmaker, and couldn’t help thinking that she was sadly right. That naïve girl had, in fact, died.

‘I will find her, Kinomoto, even if it takes me to hell,’ he declared, abruptly.

Sakura looked askance at the General and nodded, slowly. ‘I’m sure of that, Sir,’ she said with a deep sigh.

She was pretty sure that, with all the lies she’d been telling, her bad karma was piling up enough that they’d end up meeting at a common hell at some point.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

‘Here it is, General,’ the fat officer at the City Guard Office placed a pile of paper and parchments in front of General Li and the Captain. ‘You’ve asked for the complaints and reports from the past year…’ He couldn’t quite hide the curiosity from seeping out of his voice as he looked at the imposing man standing before him.

‘That’s right. I want to see all the documented cases from the previous fourteen months,’ the General stated, unwavering, as he skimmed through the documents.

‘May I ask what is it that you’re looking for, Sir?’ The officer fidgeted, rolling his shoulder uncomfortably and turned to stare at the green-eyed boy with a frown as if expecting some sort of explanation.

The young Captain returned the fat man’s stare with one of his own, completely unaffected.

‘That’s no concern of yours,’ Xiao Lang uttered impatiently, without taking his eyes from the documents. ‘You should worry yourself with securing the city, Major Shirong. Shanghai is a mess.’

The Major looked back to the General with a contemptuous sneer. ‘The fact, General, is that Shanghai’s only value is the riches obtained by its brothels and opium dealers.’

Very slowly, Li raised his eyes, silently glaring at the Major and making him feel uncomfortable by the second. Straightening himself up to his full height, he grabbed the reports. ‘How can there be so few reports for such a violent city?’

‘Not every crime is reported to the City Guard. Robbery, murder and rape happen here on a daily basis. Who cares if whores go missing or indigents get killed, Sir?’ The Major shrugged, with a dismissive hand-waving. ‘There’s a war going on. The good people of Shanghai know not to make the Imperial Army lose their time with such things.’

Li narrowed his eyes on the man, critically inspecting him. He hadn’t liked the man, not one bit. He was overweight and moved sluggishly which indicated a concerning lack of training and laziness; his blade was tarnished, his uniform was unwashed and grimy, marking him as unkempt. His disregarding remarks showed a lack of intelligence. Xiao Lang hated that kind of man. They disgraced the Army and dishonoured the Emperor.

‘If that’s the case, I’ll write a report on the city’s situation, recommending that Shanghai be marked as a security black spot, for, as you so pertinently put it, there’s a war going on and it would be just too easy for traitors and conspirators to make their lair in the city. I’ve spent the whole day walking around yesterday and didn’t see a single patrol on the streets. I doubt there’s any patrolling at night.’

The Major widened his eyes and then scowled at the General. ‘That’s out of your jurisdiction.’

‘You’re clearly not part of my troop, Major,’ he scoffed at the soldier. ‘But I still outrank you and it’s not your place to tell me what I can or can’t do. I want to have a word with General Mao as soon as he arrives.’

The Major’s already pale face turned a sickly grey and he tugged at his collar. ‘Will you be waiting for him, then?’

‘Isn’t that obvious?’ The General replied, turning on his heels. ‘I’ll be in the office analysing this…’ Xiao Lang patted lightly at the bundle of documents the Major had given him. ‘Let me know when the General gets here.’

Sakura watched as Xiao Lang made his way to said office and then turned to observe the Major: he was sweating. Profusely. Except it wasn’t even a hot enough day to justify that. So it stood to reason that the man was nervous about something. Sakura narrowed her eyes at him, making him fidget, darting his eyes around the room.

‘Wh-What are you looking at, you brat? I outrank you, so don’t look at me like that!’

Sakura looked around to hide the way her lips curled in contempt. ‘It’s too hot in here, huh, Major?’

The man swallowed hard, wiping his sweaty forehead. ‘Indeed, it is!’

She briefly took notice of the opened windows and the guardsmen wearing heavy coats, just like the one she had on. Without any other word, and just as the General had done before, she turned on her heels and headed to the little office, closing the door.

She pulled a chair and sat in front of the General, watching him as he perused the documents he brought with him. She rolled her eyes when he clenched his teeth at whatever he was reading. That whole situation was just ridiculous. She had never imagined he’d be that thick-headed to try and fix a misstep.

‘Something here doesn’t smell right,’ Li said all of a sudden.

‘This whole place smells wrong, General,’ she replied, annoyed.

‘That’s true,’ he sighed. ‘But that’s not what I meant. These reports are all incomplete. In a city such as Shanghai, they should be more detailed to give us an edge when trying to fight the criminals.’ He stated, concerned. ‘I hate lazy officers.’

‘There’s a lot of crime around, Sir. The soldiers must be more concerned with keeping their lives than with the bureaucracy.’

‘Some formalities allow us to compile registers and statistics, Kinomoto. It’s not just useless poetry in silk scrolls like what the nobles waste their time with.’ Li replied. ‘A city like this, with dozens of pleasure houses quarantined, where people die from diseases or are killed and just…’ he flipped through the reports over the table. ‘I don’t think there are even a hundred reports here. And this is supposed to be fourteen months worth of crime.’

‘General Mao had requested for reinforcements a while back,’ she mentioned.

‘Yes. And we sent two-hundred men his way, but he hadn’t mentioned how bad things still were around here in any of his following correspondence. There’s definitely something wrong here.’ He ran his hand through his hair. ‘I also didn’t like that Major Shirong.’

‘He’s not a pleasant man,’ Sakura agreed, hesitantly. ‘Nor trustworthy.’

‘Officers like him are a discredit to the Imperial Army.’ He couldn’t hide the criticism in his voice even as he went back to reading the reports in silence.

When Xiao Lang looked up again, after some time, he frowned looking through the window. ‘It’s past noon already and General Mao is still to arrive. He’s not the kind of man who would shrink from his duty. And he wouldn’t let someone like Shirong in charge of the city like this.’

Sakura tapped her fingers on the table, thinking about it. He was right, there was something going on there. Before she could say anything, the General had gotten up.

‘Let’s go,’ he went to the door, looking at her over his shoulder. ‘Be on your guard.’

She looked around, searching for whatever had triggered him to move even as she followed him out of the room. They exited the City Guard Office and strode away.

Xiao Lang abruptly changed directions a couple times, meandering around the city while stealthily looking for something behind them. Sakura had to control herself to avoid doing the same and giving out that they were on to whoever the General was trying to lose.

After enough twists and turns to let Sakura feeling slightly dizzy, the General stopped in front of a restaurant, briefly hesitating before getting in. ‘Let’s eat something.’

Sakura followed him without a word but bursting with curiosity. Before entering the building, she risked a quick glance around and still couldn’t find anything that justified his behaviour.

They sat at a table and placed their orders, keeping the charged stillness around them for a moment longer before Xiao Lang broke the silence. ‘Je sais que vous étudiez le français avec Daidouji.’ (I know you’ve been studying French with Daidouji).

Sakura stared at him in wide-eyed astonishment, before replying in the same language. ’I didn’t know you spoke French, General.’

‘Just a bit. I hired someone to teach me enough to be able to read a few engineering books,’ he went on, giving that little importance.

Sakura just nodded, still feeling slack-jawed. That man was full of surprises. She had no idea the General also knew French, but what really astonished her was that he was sufficiently aware of her own knowledge to use that ruse so no one else would understand them. Lower ranking officers, such as herself, barely knew how to read and write, let alone speak a foreign language.

‘General Mao might be dead, for all we know. It’s the only reason I can think of for his absence,’ he commented with a straight face.

‘Major Shirong started sweating profusely when you said you’d wait for the General,’ she pointed out with knit brows.  

‘I also noticed that. And the other guardsmen were trying too hard not to attract any attention. They’re definitely hiding something,’ he said thoughtfully.

‘What do you intend to do? Will you report it to the Emperor?’

Xiao Lang shook his head. ‘We need to find out what’s happening first. Prince Yue will keep us here till he’s done enjoying himself, so we’ll have plenty of time to get to the bottom of it and weed out the undesirables,’ he smirked, looking at his pupil.

Sakura looked at the General with a raised eyebrow. ‘Weed out, Sir?’

A servant woman approached their table with their orders and began setting the dishes and teapot in front of them. The fragrant scent of star anise, fennel seed, Szechuan pepper, cinnamon and cloves mixed with the pork and fresh plums momentarily took Sakura’s attention from her superior officer to the richly decorated ceramic pots on the table that were causing her to salivate.

He nodded. ‘Exactement. Starting out with the crooked officers…’ he mentioned, carelessly gesticulating with his hands. ‘Like the shifty men following us.’

Sakura nodded once. ‘I figured we were being followed, though I haven’t been able to locate them.’

‘I knew you would infer it,’ he said unsurprised. Touya was smarter than the average soldier, after all. ‘There’s one at the table to the right near the entrance and two more outside, near our window, trying to hear what we’re talking.’ He frowned while looking around the busy restaurant. ‘I can’t find where the fourth man went.’

Sakura narrowed her eyes at the General and then looked askance at the window. ‘Are you sure he’s not outside as well?’

Xiao Lang shook his head with certainty. ‘Watch the shadows. Do you see how there are only two shadows stationed near the window?’

Sakura took notice of what he said. ‘And are you sure there are four of them?’

‘What do you think?’ Li looked at her with one raised eyebrow and opened an enigmatic smile before gesturing for the attendant to serve them the tea.

Sakura rolled her eyes. He could be insufferably smug, sometimes.

The servant poured the hot liquid into the cups and presented them ceremoniously, with both hands, to the General first and then to the Captain.

Li was once again looking over the restaurant trying to locate the fourth element of the group following them. He distractedly reached out for his teacup, inhaling the sharp and astringent vapours of the green tea. It was still boiling hot, so he just set it back down and reached for his rice bowl, instead. He was rather hungry and the camp food was always the same insipid watery goo.

Sakura was also looking around, but then she took notice of the servant who remained by their table, waiting to be released from their service.

The woman was holding the platter to her chest, her knuckles turning white at the tray’s rim. Her eyes were darting around but seemed to return quite often to the teapot at the centre of their table.

Sakura saw the woman hold her breath when Xiao Lang reached for his cup and widened her eyes at a sudden realisation. ‘Don’t!’ She snapped at him, grabbing the General’s wrist before he could take the first sip.

‘What the…’ he stopped in mid-sentence, frozen in place, agape with wide eyes as what had just happened dawned on him. He slowly lowered his arm - the Captain’s hand still on his wrist - and placed the cup back on the table, all the while staring into Kinomoto’s green eyes.

Sakura pointed with her eyes in the woman’s direction and saw the General nod once. And just like that, without a single word exchanged between them, they had an action plan traced.

Sakura let go of his wrist and, with a sudden spring, leapt onto the woman before she could even think of fleeing. The General had jumped to his feet, kicked the window open in pursuit of the two men outside.

‘Even think of screaming and I’ll rip your tongue out,’ Sakura warned the woman who cowered under the tight grip on her arm. ‘Where’s the man who gave you the poison?’

‘I-I d-don’t know…’ the woman whimpered.

‘Don’t lie to me!’ Sakura growled, twisting her arm.

The servant shrank under her firm grasp, shaking from head to toe and Sakura noticed how her eyes kept going back to the kitchen door.

Sakura pulled the woman’s arm to her back a bit more forcefully. ‘I should slit your throat for attempting against the life of Imperial officers!’ She said through clenched teeth, before releasing her and crossing the restaurant to the kitchen under the confused patron’s eyes.

She stormed into the hot kitchen and immediately located a guardsman across the vaporous room. The man was stuffing himself with something or other and got startled by her entrance, though he quickly recovered from his catatonic state, heading to the kitchen’s back door.

Sakura pursed her mouth in a sneer. Ah, but there was no way she would allow the cowardly rat to escape after trying to poison her. She reached for the throwing knife she kept by her ankle without ever taking her eyes from the man.

Just as the soldier touched the door to push it open, a knife nailed his hand to the wood and he howled in pain as a wounded animal.

Sakura then marched across the room, hitting the man’s leg with enough strength to debilitate his movements, should he attempt to flee again. She twisted the knife before pulling it from his hand and kicked the door open to get out of that place, taking the offender with her.

As soon as she stepped into the alley outside, Sakura saw the General approaching her while dragging one of their pursuers with him.

‘One of them died,’ Xiao Lang said, tossing the man to the ground in front of her. ‘The other ran away.’

The man caught by Sakura was as tall as her General, and she found it disappointing that he was so frightened of her at that point to give her no trouble while she dragged him around. With a hard tug, the man fell to the floor next to his companion whining and whimpering over his injured hand. Sakura rolled her eyes. Those men were weaklings. It was no wonder Shanghai was such a crime-ridden city.

Xiao Lang stopped by her side, watching the criminals with a crooked smile. He patted her on the back, clearly satisfied with her, by what she’d done.

Sakura saw Li approach the men on the floor, tying them up before interrogating them. They tried to put up a strong face at first, but it didn’t take long before they started blurting out everything they knew, which, admittedly, wasn’t much. They were ordered by Major Shirong to "take care of the nosy General and his pet Captain”. The Major had also provided the toxin to deal with them in case the opportunity to use it presented itself.

Xiao Lang took the flask from the man Sakura captured in the kitchen and analysed it for a few moments. Then he tossed it to her.

‘What do you think it is?’ Sakura asked. The guardsmen had sworn they didn’t know.

The General narrowed his eyes, looking at Touya. ‘They didn’t use much. It’s nearly full, so it must be something potent.’

‘The Imperial Army sometimes apply snake venom to coat arrows,’ she mentioned, looking at the flask in her hands but, then, she shook her head, remembering the lessons she had with Li about toxins. ‘It can’t be snake venom. It can’t be venom at all. Venom needs to get straight into the blood through a wound to be effective.’

The General nodded with a satisfied grin and crossed his arms. ‘So which kind of toxin is it?’

Sakura narrowed her eyes at the General. ‘You’re testing me, aren’t you?’

Xiao Lang widened his eyes, trying -- and failing -- to look offended by her comment. ‘You just saved my life! Why would I do that?’

‘Because if you had taken that tea, I would have to figure out what it is to give you the antidote.’

He laughed, throwing his head back. ‘Excellent answer! Now… what is it? Remember that each toxin acts differently in our bodies, so they need to be countered by specific antidotes. If you get the wrong answer, I might be as good as dead… Hypothetically speaking.’ He looked at the Captain with a raised eyebrow. ‘You wouldn’t want that, would you?’

She swallowed hard, looking away from him and stared at the flask again. Damn it! She hated it when he tested her like that. The worst was knowing that he did that to have fun at her expense.

The toxin could come from anything, really. She had already ruled out venom, so scorpions and snakes were out. The army didn’t use poison and officially it was considered a dishonourable tactic, but the Imperial Library still had many books on the subject. There were several poisonous animals and plants around China.

She opened the flask, taking a shallow sniff at the content. She flinched, crinkling her nose and tearing up at the pungent rancid odour. It was, indeed, a concentrated substance. And she doubted it was of vegetal origin. It had a very bile-like smell.

She recalled what she had read in several books about that issue. Frog and toad poison was fairly common but it loses its potency when boiled or exposed to high temperatures -- their tea had been really hot when it got to their table. Also, most amphibian poisons didn’t conserve its toxicity for long. She doubted the Major had had time to arrange a new flask of poison since she and the General had arrived at the City Guard Office that morning.

No, he already had the poison stored somewhere. It was very becoming of a man like Shirong. He’d rather use cowardly means to deal with problems instead of direct confrontation.

‘If you take your time, my chances of surviving also decrease,’ Xiao Lang said with a somewhat dramatic flare.

She held tightly to the flask. The General was looking at her with a raised eyebrow. She couldn’t fail that test. ‘I’m thinking...’ she said through gritted teeth.

Other common poisonous species could be found in the sea. Starfish, octopuses, Devilfish… Which would the Major use? In order to kill them fast, the dosage needed to be lethal. There would be no do-overs, no second chances. What would be guaranteed to kill them?

She widened her eyes. ‘It’s blowfish poison.’

The General narrowed his eyes at her. ‘We never saw this poison in our classes. How did you figure it out?’

‘I’ve read that the toxin extracted from the blowfish is durable and resistant to storage. I figured a man like Major Shirong would have something as low as this at the ready in case he needed,’ she shrugged. ‘If you had drunk that tea, General, I wouldn’t be able to do much to help you. Blowfish poison is deadly in really small doses.’

He nodded, accepting her explanation. ‘You got the answer right, even if you figured out the poison due to the assassin’s characteristics.’ Xiao Lang heaved a sigh and held her gaze for a long moment. ‘I’m glad you stopped me from taking that first sip.’

She looked away, trying not to think of what could've happened had she not noticed the odd behaviour of the attendant. She tightened the grip on the poison flask and furrowed her brow. ‘If you hadn’t taken a mortal dose, then you would have to spew out all the poison, and immediately swallow a concoction of charcoal macerated in alcohol, ginger and cinnamon to try to counter the toxin…’

Xiao Lang stared at her for a moment with a fixed gaze, his mouth wide open. Then he narrowed his eyes, looking at Kinomoto with suspicion. ‘What the hell have you been studying in that Library?’

She shrugged, feeling somewhat satisfied with his reaction. ‘A little of everything but what really matters is that, if there had been any chance of saving you, I would be able to do it,’ she cleverly replied.

The General shook with laughter. ‘You’re right. So you’ve saved me twice,’ he jested. ‘I knew you could do it, Kinomoto. You wouldn’t let your General die, would you?’

‘Hmph.’ Sakura fidgeted, clasping her wrist behind her back and jutting out her chin, avoiding to face him. ‘Yes, I would,’ she answered out of spite. ‘If it was to save the Emperor…’

‘Ah, yes! Once again an excellent answer,’ Xiao Lang agreed, still laughing. ‘The Emperor’s life is much more important than ours.’

‘What should we do with them?’ She pointed to the two guards still tied on the floor to change the subject.

The General scowled at the two men. ‘The only thing that can be done when we’re dealing with traitors.’

She just nodded, knowing exactly what those words meant.

‘By the way…’ Xiao Lang began, making her turn to face him. ‘Thank you, Touya,’ he said with a grateful smile that made her heart skip a beat.

Sakura widened her eyes at hearing him call her by what he believed to be her first name. She slumped her shoulders and looked away. ‘I just performed my duty, General,’ she said quietly.

She wondered how could a name symbolise her freedom while reminding her that she was still caged. The more Touya achieved, the more certain she became that Kinomoto Sakura would never be free.


 

Sakura glanced sideways to the General beside her. They were on the outside of one of the few whorehouses still unaffected by the pestilence infecting the city. She was on edge and broke out in a cold sweat, in spite of the chilly night air. To add to her discomfort, they were wearing plain clothes instead of their uniforms. It left her feeling oddly vulnerable.

They could hear a man laughing as he pleasured himself with a rather noisy concubine. She groaned, holding tightly to the handle of her sword.

‘We’ll get the scoundrel,’ the General whispered, attracting her attention. ‘But we can’t be unfair. We need to make sure that no innocent bystander will be caught by mistake.’

She knew that he had noticed her tension and tried to relax, but didn’t answer.

As soon as they got to the camp after the attempted poisoning, the General had prepared an urgent missive to the Emperor, reporting what had occurred and his suspicions about General Mao being dead, as well as his plan of action.

Sakura considered childish of him to go over Prince Yue’s authority like that. She knew they couldn’t stand one another, but His Imperial Highness was still his superior and the Emperor’s de facto representative in the area for being closest.

The General only jeopardised his own authority by not respecting the Prince’s. And he didn’t even try to hide his disdain. It was ironic that he was blatant about questioning the authority of others when he hated to have the same done to his.

The morning following the departure of the messenger, they headed to Shanghai with their soldiers to take control of the City Guard Office. They’ve faced some resistance, at first, but not as much as she had thought and, in less than a week, Shanghai’s guardsmen had surrendered.

It seemed like Major Shirong was highly unpopular among his own men and nothing but the required loyalty demanded of a soldier to his superior officer had kept him in charge for so long. Notwithstanding, they wouldn’t trust the remaining guardsmen of Shanghai as far as they could throw them, so Xiao Lang had appointed a man he trusted to command the City Guard.

Shirong had escaped the siege to the City Guard Office a few days ago. Well, not actually escaped. General Li let him go so that the idiotic coward would lead them to his accomplices. They were also hoping to find out what had actually happened to General Mao. His family was desperate after any news.

They thought the plan wouldn’t bear fruit when Shirong had remained hidden in an abandoned warehouse for the first couple days. Then the man finally surfaced that evening.

Sakura put her hands in the pockets of her coat and sighed, tiredly. ‘I hope he won’t stay in there too long.’

‘Don’t worry. He’ll come out soon enough,’ Xiao Lang said, leaning against the wall.

‘How can you be so sure of that?’ She inquired watching him with suspicion.

‘He went up alone,’ the General mentioned, pointing toward one of the windows where they had seen Shirong pass a few minutes earlier.

‘So? He could meet up with a concubine in one of the rooms,’ she replied.

‘That may be the case in classier houses at The Forbidden City, but in Shanghai, you chose the woman before heading to a room,’ he explained, tapping his feet.

Sakura straightened up, shuffling involuntarily where she stood. She was again reminded of the day they first met, of the way he had bought her virtue, dragging her to a dirty room. She clenched her fists inside her pockets.

‘You seem very knowledgeable on the matter, huh,’ she couldn’t help the remark.

‘Well, I’ve certainly past the point of spending every night with the same concubine, attaching myself to her,’ he answered, raising one eyebrow.

‘Hmph…’ Sakura shook her head, rolling her eyes. ‘We’re in this mess because you attached yourself to a concubine, aren’t we?’

‘I’ve already told you that she was not a concubine,’ he heaved a sigh, looking down and away from the building they’ve been watching. ‘But you’re right! I’m obsessed with her. And you were also right to say that I’m trying to fix something that can’t be fixed. So we’ll solve this issue with the City Guard because it’s a security matter, and go back to our duties.’

Sakura looked to her feet with a tight-lipped smile. ‘If we can make this city a better place, even if just a little, for people like her, it’s already worth it, isn’t it?’

‘I’m not doing all of this for her.’ Xiao Lang frowned. ‘I’m just making justice and dealing with traitors who tried to kill me and killed a fellow military.’

Sakura smirked knowingly. ‘You didn’t really need to take over the City Guard Office and re-establish the rounds for that.’

‘I just hate slackers,’ he said, avoiding to face his pupil. ‘It’s not because the victim of a murderer was a whore that she doesn’t deserve justice. Plus, murderers are a danger to us all and can’t be allowed to roam around freely. Only the Emperor and those empowered by him -- his arms throughout his lands -- have the right to take a life.’

Sakura was about to call him on his nonsensical sense of pride -- as if she hadn’t seen him sweep that rotten city up and down after the girl whom she had been -- when Shirong left the building, followed by three other men.

The conversation was over. They crept through the dark streets and alleyways in pursuit of Shirong and his companions.

The four men scuttled their way across the city, jumping at their own shadows with fear of encountering the City Guard patrols.

Sakura and the General almost lost the thugs’ track when a beggar intercepted them, asking for money, but luckily Shirong had stopped at the front door of a quarantined building and knocked.

Sakura felt her blood run cold in her veins at the recognition of the place. “ You have got to be kidding me!”

‘How ironical,’ Xiao Lang muttered echoing her thoughts.

The four men entered Quang Dan’s brothel.

‘That damn place isn’t really quarantined, is it?’ she snarled, clenching her hands to stop them from shaking.

‘It might be but they’re too desperate to care,’ he replied, going around the building toward a back alley. He stopped suddenly and took a moment to look up at the highest windows. ‘It’s really high,’ he muttered, thoughtfully and huffed with laughter. ‘Damn headstrong girl…’

Sakura looked up, finding without any difficulty the window from where she had escaped. If she closed her eyes, she could see the red bed-coverings hanging on the wall. The gods had got to be kidding with her to make her go back into that damned place. Or maybe they were punishing her.  

She shook her head, looking to the General at hearing a muffled smashing sound. He had broken a window on the ground floor and got in. Taking a deep breath, she got in after her commanding officer, though what she really wanted was to turn around and get as far as possible from there.

Following the General’s lead, she drew her sword as they sneaked around the penumbra of the empty house. There was no one inside the sealed building, not a single sick person who was supposed to be kept isolated from the society to justify the quarantine.

Sakura heard altered voices in what seemed to be the middle of a heated argument.

She and Xiao Lang got to one of the doors of a large room where their foes kept yelling at each other, unbeknownst of their approaching mortality. They took a stealthy look at the interior of the room, seeing Shirong, his three companions and two other men. They didn’t seem like soldiers. Not well-trained ones, at least; none of them seemed particularly skilled and their weapons were currently over a table, out of their reach. They were distracted and at least one of them seemed to have been drinking by the way he was swaying. It would be rather easy to end them.

She looked at the General, seeing a somewhat feverish look in his eyes. She noticed how he was worked up and could hardly contain his eagerness to get some action. When he looked in her direction, she nodded once ready to act on his signal.

The General narrowed his eyes and they were about to attack when their enemies dropped a familiar name on their discussion.

‘General Mao must be seen publicly if we expect to continue with our dealings! We won’t be able to keep him hidden for long. Not with that bastard Li turning the city upside down trying to find his body,’ Shirong raved, desperately.

‘Are you out of your mind? If we let Mao go, he would expose us all!’ Replied one of his associates.

‘Mao doesn’t even know who he is anymore. His mind has been broken by the opium. We have him under our control for as long as we keep feeding his addiction,’ Shirong argued. ‘If Mao shows up, General Li will have no more reason to remain in the city and we’ll be able to resume our operations.’

Xiao Lang gritted his teeth at the new information. That was why he considered opium to be an even worse enemy to China then the invaders ravaging the land. It was underhanded, shady and couldn’t be defeated by his sword. It was infiltrating every tier of their society -- from homeless, beggars and whores to soldiers and high-ranking officers to Nobles and dignitaries. No one was paying any attention to that poison that left the Empire in the hands of thugs, thieves and murderers because of the war against the Huns but he feared that, when it finally became an issue, it would be already too late.

‘If Mao shows up addicted to opium, he’ll be removed from his position, which will render him useless to us,’ said another man. ‘We’ve only kept him alive to maintain the correspondence with the Emperor. I say we dispose of him, then get rid of General Li.’

Shirong groaned, unhappy with the others’ decision. Two of his associates headed upstairs, which probably meant General Mao was being held in that building.

Sakura and Xiao Lang exchanged a brief glance, nodding to one another before springing into action. Abandoning any attempt to remain out of sight, they barged into the room.

‘What the–?’ cried one of the men, caught by surprise.

‘It’s General Li!’ Shirong warned, going for his weapon just like the other three thugs still with him.

Sakura followed Li straight toward the stairs.

The General blocked a sword that came swiping in his direction and expertly bashed against his attacker, knocking him down on his arse. Next, Xiao Lang upturned a table at the bottom of the stairway, creating a makeshift barricade and held position against the charging enemies.

Sakura went up without even looking back. She trusted Xiao Lang to cover her back and knew that he could handle the four men downstairs. Her job was to reach General Mao before it was too late.

As she reached the second floor, she came face to face with one of the men who had climbed the stairs moments before.

She frowned at recognising him from the City Guard Office. She was fed up with those traitors to the Imperial Army.

The man lunged at her like a stupid monkey with a sword.

She blocked the thrust, barely feeling the recoil from the hit, pushed him back and repeatedly pummeled his face with the hilt of her sword. She had a feel of the damage done by each blow: the cracking of his cheekbone as it fractured, the snapping of his jaw being dislocated and the flopping of his left eye as it practically jumped out of its eye socket. While he was stunned, she quickly impaled him on her blade, pulling the weapon free as he collapsed on the floor with a whimper.

She cleaned her bloodied hand on her clothes, purposefully striding through the hallway. Most doors were closed and she eyed the darkness inside the open rooms with suspicion as she passed. It wouldn’t do to be caught by surprise.

She was on edge, beads of sweat broke out on her forehead at the familiarity of that hallway. That place, like the city of Shanghai, still haunted her in her nightmares.

Sakura swallowed the lump in her throat and tightened the grip on her sword. She was not helpless anymore. She was armed, she was strong, she was trained. She was a soldier, a Captain of the Empire. That innocent girl -- who had been dragged to that filthy place thinking… believing that she was being taken to meet her fiance, no matter what an unfortunate match it might’ve been -- was dead.

She stopped in front of a closed room, seeing light under the door. When she took a deep breath, trying to calm herself, she felt the distinctly intense flowery smell of opium coming from the room. General Mao would most probably be in there.

Taking a step back, she kicked the door wide open with no prelude.

Then she froze in place with her eyes wide open. ‘Shit…’ she muttered at coming across with none other than Quang Dan at the other corner of the room with a damn pistol at the ready, aimed at her.

The shot cracked loudly. For a fleeting moment, she thought she was done for. As she waited for the pain of death to sink in, she loathed herself for dying by the hands of that bastard. She hated Li for taking her there and she was annoyed at whatever deity thought it fair to make her go through all of that just to end up dying there of all places.

It took her an extra second to realise that the shot had missed her completely, piercing the wooden sill of the door near her left shoulder.

Sakura looked up at Quang Dan and saw his ashen face contort in fright. He let the pistol -- now useless -- drop to the ground and drew a dagger.

Before he could act, she had hurtled toward him with her sword. She was seething at the thought that he could have actually killed her and that it had been sheer luck that he seemed to be a crap shooter. She had to be smarter. With a swift movement, she latched on to the hand holding the dagger, twisting it at an unnatural angle till he dropped the weapon. She jabbed his larynx with the handle of her sword.

Quang Dan dropped to his knees, holding his neck and unable to breathe.

‘Hello again, you stupid bastard,’ she couldn't avoid the contempt from seeping into her voice as she held him at a sword’s point, her blade scratching his neck. 'You don't recognise me, do you?' She sneered, looking him straight in his eyes.

She heard a heavy wheezing sound and looked up finally noticing General Mao’s presence in the room. The man was in a deplorable state, shrank back at a corner with arms wrapped around himself as he shook from side to side. She thought back to when she saw the General the last time he’d been to The Forbidden City a few months ago: a strong, intelligent and, seemly, honourable man and then her thoughts went to his family, to his wife who had been grieving by his disappearance. Now, his eyes were bloodshot and glassy and he was babbling nonsenses and laughing like a crazed man until he suddenly broke into a coughing fit. His weakened body wouldn’t resist for much longer.

She clenched her jaw, facing Quang Dan with renewed hostility and clobbered him over the head with the butt of her sword, sending him sprawling across the floor.

‘Tsk, tsk, tsk… You shouldn’t have messed up with the army.’ She approached him, like a predator after its prey, and pressed her knee over his thorax to immobilise him. ‘Unlike the women you "acquired" before, we're not helpless. You can’t just pay 250 coins to buy your way out of this. And there will be no auction to save your life, either.'

His panicked eyes went wide in shock when he finally realised her identity. ‘You…’ he began, trying to move. As if discovering that she was a woman turned her incapable, somehow.

She just pressed her knee harder against his ribs, making them crack near the breaking point.

‘You’re a crazy bitch,’ he said through clenched teeth.

‘I’m not a bitch,’ she hissed and brought her blade against his neck, just enough to pierce the skin and draw some blood. ‘I’m an Imperial Captain, you dirtbag.’  

Then she slit his throat. She stood up and took two steps back, her glazed eyes never leaving the thrashing body.

That’s when she heard a clatter from the door behind her and turned around, tightening her grip on the handle of the sword, ready to defend herself. She felt her blood run cold in her veins at seeing Xiao Lang enter the room and wondered if he had heard anything.

His eyes took a brief glance of Quang Dan’s corpse, before focusing on General Mao, who still laughed, out of his mind.

‘I’ve heard a gunshot…’ Xiao Lang mentioned, pointing to the dead man’s body on the floor. ‘Was that the brothel owner?’

‘Yes, it was. He had a pistol, for whatever good that did him,’ Sakura said, still in a daze. She gritted her teeth and spit over the corpse. ‘Bloody idiot!’

Xiao Lang looked at Kinomoto, narrowing his eyes at his pupil’s uncharacteristically cruel countenance. Touya was one of the most skilled soldiers he’d ever met, deadly, though inexperienced, but he was never disrespectful. ‘How do you know he was the panderer?’ he inquired. ‘I thought you’ve never been to a whorehouse before I took you to see Daidouji.’

Sakura felt her body freeze momentarily and turned to face him with her big green eyes wide open due to her oversight. Swallowing hard, she tightened the grip on her sword and took a step back, straightening herself up. She pulled a piece of rag from her pocket and studiously wiped clean the blood from her blade thinking of an excuse, before calmly sheathing it.

‘Only a pander would think of calling the Captain who has a sword against his throat “the General’s bitch”...’ she grumbled, scowling at Li when he snickered.

The General shook his head, trying hard not to smile. It was better not to provoke his young friend. At least while he had such a murderous look on his face.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

Sakura and the General had spent nearly five months in the surroundings of Shanghai, training their troop and experimenting with black powder to try and improve the effectiveness of their cannons. They had reached some interesting results by adding a thin layer of graphite powder to the shells the Army already used as well as mixing a kind of saltpetre found in deserts to the usual powder. Li presented their findings, but that subject had been pushed aside by more pressing matters.

The General had been summoned by the Emperor back to The Forbidden City nearly a month ago, leaving her in charge of the hundred men in the platoon. She was rather proud of herself for being able to carry out the soldiers’ training without a hitch, which she gladly reported to her superior. The only sour note of her communications was the passing of General Mao, after months of suffering the after-effects of the opium-induced usage. Other than that, Shanghai was slowly recovering under a new and watchful guard after years of corruption.

Now, she was near Li in the War Room, next to the strong arm of the Empire, after six months away from The Forbidden City, just to find the palace in a ruckus due to the latest Hun manoeuvring.

She glanced at the imposing General beside her while absent-mindedly hearing all the atrocities committed by the Huns and the destruction left in their wake. As crazy as it might seem, she had actually missed the uptight jerk. She had even found herself missing his taunting. She also came to understand him a little better during that month. Being the officer in charge of the platoon, she had been on the receiving end of well-measured fear and respect which came at the cost of being kept at a distance. She had never felt so alone before, with no one to talk to.

She had also used that time apart to mull over everything that had ever happened between them. He was chauvinistic, no doubt, but she couldn’t just blame it on him once that was how their society worked. Plus, he wasn’t all bad. He had been willing to give the green-eyed girl some money so that she could change her fortune! That was huge since not even the concubines were handed money -- the payments were always made to the brothel-owners.

She heaved a sigh, not knowing how to feel about it. When she didn’t know him, she could just hate him for the way he acted on their first meeting. It was easier to focus on the bad and conceive him as a heartless man who didn’t care about the women he lied with. Now, however, the great wall she had erected between them was starting to crack and she knew it to be dangerous.

She had to talk to Tomoyo, she needed to unburden herself about those thoughts hammering inside her head, but… That was something to think about later.

She shook her head, focusing on the present. Right now, she had a duty to perform. There were bigger issues to be dealt with than her personal dilemmas. Like, how to put a stop to the Hun invasion, once and for all. She quietly surveyed the room, watching the expressions on the men’s faces and finding them at loss.

The reports were atrocious. The savagery and devastation performed by the Huns at each village were disheartening. She clenched her wrists thinking that those barbarians not only killed the younger men who could fight them but also mercilessly murdered the elders, the children and, after taking their pleasure with them, the women.

She observed the Emperor, regally seated on his throne and noticed that he looked weary and older than he seemed at the start of the meeting. Her eyes moved to the Prince, beside his father, and she noticed him unfazed, bored even. It was odd to witness such a disregard from His Highness when the Son of Heaven himself was so clearly desolated. It was as if the Imperial Prince had no feelings at all.

Glancing once again at the General, she noticed that he was shaking, his hands were clenched at his back and throbbing veins were visible in his neck. It was the most discomposed she’d ever seen him in public.

‘We’ll defeat them, Father,’ Prince Yue stated rather arrogantly when the room grew silent after the reports had been concluded. ‘The Huns are surely no match for our Great Army.’

The Prince’s words were far from consoling to his father. ‘So much death. So much blood… They shed the blood of women, children and elders just as easily as they do the men’s,’ said the Emperor, desolated. ‘They respect no one and have no fear of the Gods…’

‘We need to expel them from Your Majesty’s lands once and for all,’ said one of the Councillors, also mournful.

‘We are certain to succeed in that endeavour!’ the Prince proclaimed, self-assured.

‘And, pray, tell me, just how do you suggest we do that?’ Emperor Wei inquired, making every head in the room turn to the Prince in an expectant silence, but the Prince chose that moment to still his tongue.

A thick and heavy silence descended over the room as no one seemed to find an answer to that question.

Sakura watched all those seasoned, experienced soldiers just looking at each other with desperation. The Imperial Army had tried every usual tactic against those enemies, but the Huns were unpredictable in their progress and their troops disbanded after each attack, regrouping as if by magic to attack somewhere else. There was no way to tell their numbers for sure and to engage the enemies meant dividing their own troops, which could prove to be fatal. She looked at the map opened before the throne, summoning the details of the land from her memory.

If the usual tactics weren’t working, then, maybe, something unusual could be the answer. If they could predict where the enemy was going to show up, then they could control the battle outcome. “Know thyself, know thy enemy, know the battlefield and you shall be victorious.” Hadn’t she read something like that before?

She leant in toward Xiao Lang, whispering thoughtfully. ‘What if we could attract the Huns somewhere? Determine where they’ll attack next?’

He looked at her with narrowed eyes. ‘How would we do that?’

‘We throw them a bait they won’t be able to resist,’ she said, the wheels turning faster and faster in her head as she came up with a plan. ‘What if…’

‘You seem to have the answer, huh, General Li!’ Prince Yue called out to them, sarcastically.

The Emperor turned their way, still showing signs of exhaustion. ‘What do you suggest, Xiao Lang?’

Sakura noticed the condescending sneer on the Prince’s face at putting the General on the spot like that.

Li straightened himself up. ‘Come along, Captain Kinomoto!’ He set off in a stride toward the Emperor’s throne.

Sakura was startled by the sudden action, but followed through without delay, matching her steps with his.

The General purposefully ignored the Prince’s scowl as he approached the throne. ‘Your Majesty,’ he bowed slightly, before facing his sovereign. ‘We were discussing the possibility of attracting the Huns somewhere in order to press a charge against them.’

‘That’s crazy!’ Prince Yue scoffed at the idea. ‘If we had that kind of power over the enemy, we could simply make them leave our lands at once!’

Sakura frowned at the Prince’s shallow commentary. He was an arrogant and sarcastic man, all talk and no action whatsoever. Indeed, he showed every sign of being unable to accept that others succeeded where he failed. That was, probably, the reason behind his scorn toward Xiao Lang. The General might’ve come from a military lineage, but his accomplishments were achieved by his own merit and hard work, not just handed over on a silver plate.

To make things worse, the Emperor had the General in high-regard, what only made the Prince envy him even more. Sometimes Sakura couldn’t help comparing His Highness with a spoiled younger brother who tried too hard to get his father’s attention. It was ironic, really, considering that the Prince was the child of the Son of Heaven, while Xiao Lang was a mere General.

Sakura looked at the General who nodded, urging her to share her idea.

Xiao Lang knew that whatever idea Touya had would be a good one. He wasn’t easy to trust, but that kid had an ingenious adaptative mind. It was no wonder he had taken to the boy the way he did.

Her eyes remained glued on the General as she took a deep breath before speaking. ‘The Huns’ greatest advantage has been the fact that we can’t predict where they’re going to attack next. They have been taking their time and advancing little by little, but we know that their ultimate target is The Forbidden City and…’ She turned her eyes to the Emperor, slightly bowing her head. ‘Your Imperial Majesty, the Lord of Ten Thousand Years.’ She felt her whole body shake under the weight of the Emperor’s amber eyes. It was crazy that she, a simple Captain, found herself directing the word to the Son of Heaven like that. ‘They have even tried to reach Your Majesty here before, in spite of The Forbidden City being known as impregnable. Imagine, then, what they would do if they found out that our Emperor is in a more vulnerable place…’

Her words provoked a buzzing of protest from many of the Officers in the room. Sakura straightened herself up, clenching her hands at her sides to avoid wringing them out of anxiety.

The Emperor remained calmly observing the Captain, only taking his eyes from the young man to glance at Xiao Lang who stood quietly beside his protegé.

‘Silence!’ Wei commanded when the unsatisfied murmur in the room had gone on for too long, already. Then he looked back at Kinomoto and leant forward, gesturing in the kid’s direction. ‘Please, proceed, Captain.’

Sakura took another deep breath. ‘Obviously that Your Majesty wouldn’t be put in any danger,’ she clarified, seeing the Emperor crinkle his eyes and nose in amusement.

‘I didn’t think for a second that I would, child…’ Wei said, reassuring.

Sakura nodded and glanced at Li before continuing. ‘If the Huns learnt that Your Majesty supposedly was in another place, say...’ She perused the map open between her and the throne, looking for something. Her eyes found an Imperial Palace on an adequate choke-point surrounded by mountains to the North of the Forbidden City and not too close to the invaded lands as to arise suspicion. ‘... at the Chifeng Palace,’ she pointed out, looking up again and heard a different kind of murmur spread in the room. ‘They would probably launch an all-out attack in order to consolidate their conquest.’

General Li smirked with pride at the charged silence filling the air. He could see the undisguised awe in many Officers’ faces at his pupil’s brilliant mind.

Breaking the stillness, one of the Imperial Councillors inquired. ‘And how would we fool them, Captain?’

‘That’s the tricky part,’ Sakura said, furrowing her brow. ‘How to create an illusion real enough to mislead them…?’

‘What if we spread a rumour?’  An Officer suggested.

‘Yes! They ought to believe it!’ Exclaimed another.

‘No, they wouldn’t!’ Xiao Lang interjected, shaking his head. ‘No discerning strategist would act based on rumours alone; they would investigate it first,’ he pointed out. ‘They might believe it if the information came from a captured soldier, though.’

‘I don’t think anyone would volunteer for that mission, General Li,’ replied a Major, snickering.

‘Unless…’ Sakura muttered with a strange gleam in her eyes. ‘Unless we volunteered the dead…’

Li frowned at her. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘No troop can survive without water, so we know they have to keep themselves near rivers and such. It’s just a matter of finding out which ones and choosing a drop-point to allow the Huns to find an unfortunate Imperial Messenger who died carrying the fake information about the Emperor’s movements,’ Sakura said, thoughtfully, her mind racing as she came up with the details of the plan.

‘I still don’t understand, Kinomoto,’ Xiao Lang grumbled, crossing his arms over his chest. ‘Who would be this Messenger?’

Sakura turned to face the General with a solemn expression. ‘A handful of indigents are found dead around the city every now and then. As no one claims them, they’re denied the adequate funerary rites,’ she started explaining. ‘I say we offer one of them the honour of serving his Emperor and help save His Majesty’s lands in exchange of aiding his poor soul to transcend.’

‘So we’d dress a dead indigent as a Messenger and let the Huns find him,’ Xiao Lang nodded in understanding. “This could actually work!” ‘The missive would need to look authentic -- signed and bearing the Imperial Seal -- for anything out of place might tip-off the Huns about the trap.’

‘Precisely! They are certain to have someone able to read Mandarin,’ Sakura agreed.

‘And once they’re aware of our Emperor’s location, they would move against him,’ an older General concluded.

‘Straight into our well-prepared battleground where we will, then, end this war, at last,’ cheered another.

The officers' spirits rose and the apathy that consumed them just moments before dwindled. They felt like laughing.

Emperor Wei watched his trusted officers cluster around the young green-eyed Captain, their morale higher than it had been in a long time after so many defeats, and he was able to smile, even if for a moment. His concerned eyes caught sight of General Xue Lian, who remained apart from his peers, seemingly unsatisfied, and he couldn’t help glancing toward his son, finding the Prince sulking and glaring menacingly at Xiao Lang.

‘I’m sorry, Captain, but how will we know if had they read the dispatch?’ A General asked, bringing the men back to a more sedated state of mind.

‘More importantly, how will we know for sure that they’ll act as you’re predicting?’ Inquired another.

Sakura started chewing her lower lip, thinking about that. ‘That’s a real concern. We’ll need to take additional measures,’ She looked to General Li, searching for something. ‘It usually wouldn’t take only one message to arrange for the Emperor to exit The Forbidden City, right?’

Xiao Lang nodded in agreement. ‘It would also take us some time to prepare the battleground. If they show no signs of having found the first Messenger, we could probably arrange for a second one,’ he proposed, thoughtful. ‘But we shouldn’t abuse of that. If too many messengers started showing up dead, they’d become suspicious.’

‘We might need to rely on luck about they finding and reading the letter,’ Sakura said, bothered over that issue. ‘We couldn’t possibly follow the body down the river because everybody knows Imperial Messengers travel alone.’

‘Relying on luck?!’ General Xue Lian exclaimed, glaring at the green-eyed Captain. ‘Do you not think it’s just too great a risk?’

‘Do you have a better suggestion, General Xue?’ Xiao Lang came to Touya’s defence, his voice harsh and upfront. ‘If you do, please, share it with us!’

Other than a low groan, the older General remained silent.

Xiao Lang scoffed, shaking his head. ‘I didn’t think so…’

‘We wouldn’t act blindly, but laying down an ambush consists of preparing ahead and then waiting,’ Sakura said, becoming the centre of attention once more. ‘We’d set the trap and only spring it once we’re sure the Huns are on the move, but we can’t underestimate our enemies!’ She reasoned. There was a reason for choosing that palace, after all. ‘They’ll send out scouts to watch the area before moving in, so our own troops will have to remain hidden. There’ll be some extra security on the Palace because it has to appear that the Emperor is there, but we can’t be caught watching too closely for them, otherwise they’ll flee. And that’s where the mountains surrounding the Chifeng Palace come in handy,’ She pointed to the map. ‘We can establish watch-posts with a wide range of sight, especially over the Shāngu Valley to the North and the Xiázhai passage to Northeast while keeping our men camped out in two or three Forward Bases out of the Huns’ way but at an easy distance from The Forbidden City… just in case they decide to come this way instead,’ she clarified, admitting that her plan wasn’t foolproof. ‘But if things go according to plan, the Huns would, then, lay siege to the Palace and our forces there will have to hold the attack on their own for the first three to five days until we’re able to move and flank them.’

‘And, surely, we can take other precautions to make sure the plan succeeds!’ declared a General, in support of the young Captain.

They worked overnight, adjusting the minutia of the plan and working on contingencies while trying to rule out everything that could go wrong. Captain Kinomoto and General Li were the main articulators of the strategy.

Xiao Lang hadn’t felt that excited about an upcoming battle for a long time. He looked at Touya talking and pointing to the map while the other officers listened to him with rapt attention and couldn’t help smiling. He was damn proud of that boy.

Touya was everything he’d ever desired in a son. He just doubted that there was a woman out there capable of giving him what he wished for.


 

Sakura was lying in Tomoyo’s bed, devouring a box of sweets her friend had received from an admirer while reading a book.

‘Oh, my…’ The concubine sighed, sitting beside her. ‘Are you really going to fight the Huns again?’

‘Yes, I need to go and make sure they’ll actually follow the plan,’ Sakura raised her eyes from the book to look at Tomoyo. ‘It’s been a long time coming and the Generals are too eager to end this war. I fear they’ll end up making a mess of everything if I’m not around,’ She shook her head and sighed. ‘At least Xiao Lang can keep a levelled head to watch out for the details.’

Tomoyo chuckled. ‘The two of you work really well together, don’t you?’

Sakura put the book down and bit her lips, playing with her hair. She had been wanting to talk to Tomoyo but also had been avoiding the subject somehow. ‘You know, Tomoyo…’ she began with a tiny stutter and heaved a sigh. ‘You were right…’

‘Oh?’ The concubine faced her with a raised eyebrow.

‘While we were near Shanghai, the General… He actually did search for… for the girl…’ She shrugged, avoiding to meet her friend’s eyes.

Tomoyo gave her a pointed look. ‘You mean he searched for you …’

Sakura pressed her lips together, rolling her eyes and crossed her arms. ‘It wasn’t me he was looking for…’

‘Oh, please! Don’t be silly, Sakura!’ The raven-haired woman snickered. ‘It was… It is you, and you know it!’ Tomoyo narrowed her eyes, watching Sakura trying to hide her annoyance. ‘What happened, exactly?’

Sakura stood up, unable to remain seated anymore, and started pacing around the room while telling Tomoyo about Xiao Lang’s odd behaviour in Shanghai and how it had led to them cleaning the city and her killing Quang Dan. ‘I was so caught up in what I was doing that, for a moment, I forgot all about the General,’ she said, running her hand through her hair. ‘When he showed up at the door, I felt a shiver down my spine afraid that he might’ve found out.’

‘Are you sure that you were shivering out of fear?’ Tomoyo asked with an enigmatic smile on her lips.

Sakura turned to face her friend with narrowed eyes. ‘What do you mean?’

Tomoyo knew Sakura well enough to be aware that, even if it was quite obvious by now, as long as she remained unwilling to face the truth, she’d keep denying it. With a heavy sigh, Tomoyo only shook her head. ‘Oh, it’s nothing...’

They remained in silence for a few minutes while Sakura mulled over their conversation a bit longer. Sakura started massaging her temples and glanced sideways at her friend. ‘You really do understand men, don’t you?’ She let her arms rest by her side, twisting her mouth in frustration. ‘You know them better than I do despite me being surrounded by men all the time…’

‘Men can be very complex, but they have nowhere to hide when they’re naked in our beds…’ Tomoyo began, making Sakura blush. She hesitated for a moment and then continued. ‘General Li, though, is actually quite transparent… He’s one of those rare men who are too passionate to be able to hide his emotions for long.’ She watched as Sakura continued to avoid her eyes. ‘He says what he thinks and you always know where you stand with him…’

Tomoyo’s purplish-blue eyes gleamed gently as she watched Sakura fight an inner-war.

‘He’s not as noble as you make him, you know…’ Sakura sighed exasperatedly. ‘He might have regretted almost raping that girl but he could have actually helped her if he only had stopped to listen to what she was saying...‘

‘Come on, Sakura,’ Tomoyo shook her head. ‘How many men do you know who would do that? How many would openly admit to making a mistake? And how many more would actually try to fix it?’ The concubine inquired. ‘Do you really intend to keep on living behind that wall for the rest of your life?’

Sakura didn’t answer, looking away from the concubine.

Tomoyo heaved a sigh, feeling disheartened. Captain Kinomoto was a really headstrong girl which was such a stark contrast with the way she looked. Even more so now while wearing one of Tomoyo’s delicate pinkish silk hanfu with her wet hair cascading over her shoulder. It was really unfair that Sakura needed to give up her femininity in order to have her brilliant mind recognised.

Tomoyo looked out the window, furrowing her brow. Sakura was a beautiful young woman and the concubine couldn’t understand how General Li and the other officers hadn’t seen through the Captain’s disguise yet. Nonetheless, she knew that, sooner or later, they would find out and it worried her.

Sakura was avoiding to look at Tomoyo, afraid that her friend would be able to see what she was thinking and really feeling through her eyes.

‘Life really isn’t fair for us women, is it?’ Tomoyo startled Sakura out of her reverie. ‘It’s hard to accept that you have to pretend to be a man to have your voice heard by a bunch of… of old baboons…’ she said and saw the hint of a smile on Sakura’s lips. ‘It’s even more revolting that, because you’re such a beautiful woman, they would pay even less attention to what you have to say.’

‘I’m not really womanly-like, Tomoyo…’ Sakura gave a one-sided shrug, letting out an unwarranted smile. ‘Though that actually works out in my favour at my current circumstances.’ Sakura leant against the furniture, crossing her arms over her stomach. ‘If I were actually “beautiful”, I would have found someone who loved me and wanted to marry me even if I…’ She cleared her throat and shook her head. ‘That’s in the past, anyway. I’m too old to get married now. Not that anyone would want to marry me, that is…’ She shrugged, trying to smile. ‘Plus, I’m not a woman anymore. Not ever again.’

‘You really don’t feel like a woman anymore?’ Tomoyo asked with a frown. ‘Aren’t you in the least curious to know how it actually feels to be a woman, Sakura?’

‘No, not really,’ Sakura replied with finality, looking straight at Tomoyo’s eyes.

The concubine said nothing more and looked away, trying hard not to smile at the Captain’s stubbornness.

They were reduced to silence after that. Sakura went back to reading her book with her back comfortably set against the fluffy feather pillow while Tomoyo just enjoyed her “day off”.

Suddenly, they heard a loud groan followed by a girly moan from the next room and smirked at each other. The delighted sounds escalated in volume and Sakura felt herself blushing out of embarrassment as it often happened whenever she heard one of the more vocal girls at the brothel.

The concubine at the neighbouring room gasped and started whimpering in midst of incoherent words which triggered Sakura and Tomoyo into a fit of giggles.

‘Wow! I think your girl is in danger there!’ said Sakura, nudging Tomoyo and only partially jesting.

‘Xanrei is always like that,’ Tomoyo shrugged with a dismissive hand-waving. ‘Especially when she spends the night with General Li.’

Sakura’s mirth turned sour in clear disappointment. So it was the General who was next door, drawing out those sounds from the concubine. She sighed, unnerved. She knew that he would be spending the night with someone, but to actually hear what he was doing was bothering her.

Tomoyo attentively observed Sakura’s reactions, opening an enigmatic smile. ‘Do you want to take a peek?’

‘Peek?’ Sakura stood up, staring at Tomoyo in wide-eyed shock. ‘N-no! That’s not right! It would be insubordination against my Commanding Officer…’

‘Why, Sakura, while you’re in here with me you’re not a soldier,’ Tomoyo commented with a mischievous smile. ‘Therefore, the General isn’t your commanding officer either.’

Even so, Sakura just shook her head in denial, taking another step back.

‘Well, I’ll take a look,’ Tomoyo declared, very daring.

Sakura watched as Tomoyo walked to her balcony and stretched her neck in order to see into the other room through the window.

‘Xanrei always leaves her window open,’ Tomoyo said in a staged whisper. She wondered how long Sakura would be able to control herself.

When Tomoyo watched over her shoulder again, she found her young friend closely behind her, wringing her hands with her face in a deep purple shade. But there was something entirely different there, as well. Something very characteristic of the Captain: curiosity .

‘He would never find out, right?’

‘Don’t worry about it, dear, he’s too busy right now…’ Tomoyo assured her.

Tomoyo took a step to the side, allowing Sakura to take her place to check out the activities going on in the next room.

Sakura stretched herself, hearing the couple inside the room with much more clarity.

Sakura had some idea of what was involved on the intimacy between a man and a woman. She had heard Mrs Yang tell the others girls, at the eve of their meeting with the Matchmaker, what would be expected of them as wives.

The wife was supposed to lie on the bed and allow the husband to take the action. He would place himself between her legs and deflower her. The wife should remain as she was, she shouldn't react, flinch or withdraw from him. The pain was to be accepted and shown to her husband as proof of her virtue, however, after the first night, any pain felt was to be overlooked and endured. She remembered particularly of Mrs Yang warning that the girls were supposed to hold still during the intimacy and just wait until their husbands were sated.

Sakura frowned at what she was seeing. That was not what she had learnt. Xanrei was not lying unmovable on the bed. On the contrary! Sakura blinked a couple times and bit her lip, watching Li’s taut back stretching and contracting as he moved over the concubine with her meeting his every movement.

Sakura widened her eyes, watching as Xanrei suddenly flipped them over, pinning Li on the bed with her knees on either side of his waist as she arched her back, her body continuing to move languidly. Sakura smirked, noticing the similarity between the way Xanrei was moving over the General and horse-riding and how that reduced the powerful warrior to a horse. It also didn’t escape her how Li seemed to be enjoying himself.

Xanrei gave a high pitched cry, almost scaring Sakura down the balcony. Actually, if Tomoyo hadn’t held Sakura by her clothes, she might’ve actually fallen.

She turned to Tomoyo, looking down and away, trying to hide her burning cheeks. ‘That was disgusting!’

Tomoyo chuckled, walking back inside behind Sakura, who was trying to appear unaffected. ‘You don’t have to lie, you know…’

Sakura bit her lower lip, thoughtfully and sat at a chair. ‘Can I ask you something?’

Tomoyo smiled softly at her. ‘Anything…’

Sakura furrowed her brow thoughtfully, glancing toward the wall separating them from the couple, then she looked back at her friend.

‘Whenever I heard Mrs Yang explaining the… the intimacy between man and wife…’ Sakura found it hard to keep eye contact with Tomoyo. ‘It wasn’t supposed to be anything like that.’

Tomoyo sighed and opened a saddened smile. ‘ The husband takes his pleasure from his wife, but the wife mustn’t show either pleasure or pain ,’ she quoted, shaking her head. She had once heard the same thing from her mother. ‘The intimacy between a man and a woman can actually be pleasurable for both of them.’

Sakura frowned, looking back at Tomoyo. ‘Then, why do they say only the man feels pleasure?’

‘Oh, sweety! Because that’s one more way for them to control us,’ Tomoyo heaved a sigh. ‘Women who feel pleasure are considered promiscuous, so married women must remain submissive and demure, especially with their husbands.’

‘It doesn’t make any sense!’ Sakura frowned deeper, shaking her head. ‘Should it not be the other way around? When you’re married, you can also have pleasure with your husband…’

‘Unfortunately, men are prone to thinking that, if a woman is able to draw pleasure during intimacy, she would walk around taking her pleasure everywhere, with any men. And, when she showed up pregnant, there would be no way to tell for sure whose child that was.’

‘But if the wife loved her husband, she wouldn’t seek a relationship with another man!’ Sakura argued. ‘Why don’t they focus on being better husbands, instead?’

‘I agree with you,’ Tomoyo nodded, heaving a sigh. ‘But they rather things remain as they are: to get pleasure from concubines and use their wives to bear their children.’

Sakura sat straight at the chair. ‘Then… a woman who wished to feel pleasure with a man, she…’ Sakura looked away from Tomoyo, staring vacantly at the wall and still hearing Xanrei’s low moaning. ‘She would have to become a concubine…’

Tomoyo watched Sakura with a mirthless smile. ‘I guess, so, Sweety… I guess so.’

To be continued.

Chapter Text

 

It was still dark outside when Sakura woke up with her heart pounding and feeling her mouth dry. Looking to the other side of the bed, she could see Tomoyo fast asleep. Whenever the General went with Captain Kinomoto to visit Daidouji’s place, Sakura ended up sleeping in her friend’s room as Xiao Lang usually spent the night there. She got up and walked to the water jug over the dresser, finding it empty.

She was parched and after just a bit of hesitation, instead of waking Tomoyo up, she decided to go by herself to the end of the corridor where an extra jug was usually found. She opened the door and peeked outside, finding the hallway covered in darkness with all but one candle burned down to the socket. Taking the lit candle with her, she tiptoed toward the refreshment near the stairs keeping her eyes peeled and ears to the ground. Luckily, the house was silent and everybody seemed to be already sleeping.

As wary as a cat, she got to the holder containing the water jug and quickly filled a mug with the fresh liquid, drinking it in a single gulp. Her thirst sated, she immediately started making it back to Tomoyo’s room, least she risked being seen by someone. She was still a couple doors away from her destiny when she heard steps and, without even thinking, blew out the candle just as someone opened a door.

Controlling her breath, she took a small step ahead, trying to make it to the room in the dark but the creaking floorboard under feet made her cringe and she decided, against her better judgment, to press herself against the wall hoping to go unnoticed by whoever it was.

‘Dammit! Why is it so dark in here?’ She heard Li’s unmistakable voice and felt her heart start pounding so loud in her chest that it became a bit difficult to hear what was happening around her over her own heartbeat.

She should’ve known that there was a slim chance of running into someone when she left the bedroom. Actually, she did know that but didn’t think it would be him . Why did it have to be the General of all people? Closing her eyes, she started praying that he would go back to Xanrei’s room so that she could find her way back to Tomoyo’s.

In the pitch-black corridor, she could hear him bumping into some objects and complaining under his breath as he got closer and closer to where she was. She gasped and held her breath when his fingers brushed over her arm and stomach.

‘Who is this?’ he inquired, holding her arm against the wall.

Sakura didn’t know what to answer. Not only was she wearing a borrowed female hanfu, she had also untied her breasts. She couldn’t be Touya. Besides, Touya wouldn’t have any reason to hide in the dark like that.

She was trying to come up with something to say, but try as she might, it was hard to think of something when his touch kept eliciting such strong sensations out of her body. His touch was tingling her skin like a myriad of shocks, causing goosebumps all over her.

‘Well, who are you, girl?’ he wanted to know, his knuckles gliding over the shape of her body.

She gasped and bit her lower lip to hold a soft whimper as his hand outlined her breast on his way up to her neck and face. She could feel his warm breath ghosting over her face as he got closer, probably trying to make out her features in the dark.

A tiny voice at the corner of her head started to warn her that she should get away from there, get away from him but, despite realising that she could easily get rid of him if she wanted to, she only shut the voice up and closed her eyes, enjoying the feeling of his calloused hand on her skin and hair.

‘Is it you, Luyan?’ he asked, running his fingers through her hair.

‘Mmhmm…’ she hummed, letting him think she was the concubine whose hair was also shoulder length like hers.

She swallowed hard, aware of her accelerating heartbeat and ran her hands up along his bare chest and back, noticing that he hadn’t closed his uniform top upon exiting the room. With her eyes closed, her mind conjured up the vision of his naked body moving over the noisy concubine the night before and she scratched his back, making him hiss.

‘You were not upset because I chose another, were you?’ he whispered in her ear, his voice deep with desire. He leant down toward her, his lips and tongue brushing against her skin, tasting her.

Sakura inhaled his familiar musky scent -- a trace of black powder and sweat -- and turned her head so that she could kiss the side of his neck. She couldn’t see him in the dark corridor, so she traced the contours of his face -- his chin, his jaw, his nose, his lips -- with her fingers. Sakura shuddered, feeling him slide one hand through her hair as the other explored her body.

She could pretend to be a man in front of everyone else but she could never kid herself. Tomoyo wasn’t entirely wrong, either, at assuming she was curious about how it felt like to be made a woman. It would be impossible not to feel curiosity, considering how frequently she went to the brothel. The point was that the man in her arms right now was the only one capable of making her lose control and give in to that aching.

She let out a moan, feeling Xiao Lang take one of her small breasts in his hand through the thin hanfu fabric. Before she could lose her nerve, Sakura pulled his head to her, placing her lips over his.

‘I can see that you weren’t upset…’ he practically growled against her mouth, pressing his taut body on hers against the wall, his tongue opening its way into her soft lips, exploring her mouth with hunger.

She could feel an unfamiliar heat coil up in her belly and gasped between kisses, instinctively pressing her hips against his.

He moaned at her movement and his lips traced kisses down her chin and over her neck as his hands found their way into her hanfu. ‘You smell so good…’ he murmured against her skin.

With a quiet sigh, she decided to try and return his actions. She parted her lips, gently nipping at the jaw she knew so well and at his neck while tasting his salty skin.

He groaned and pulled her legs slightly apart, pressing himself against her core as he touched her body under her hanfu.

Sakura shuddered again, feeling his warmth and hardness close to her centre even through the barrier of their clothing. Her body wanted him to continue eliciting those delicious sensations but she knew that madness had gone too far already. She kissed him again, threading her arms around his neck and, hooking her leg around his knee, she took his balance off and inverted their positions, throwing him against the wall with a thump and a grunt.

“You're more daring than ever…” he said through gritted teeth, nipping at her earlobe. “Just the way I like it…”

She bit down a moan and pressed her lips against his in a hard kiss, preparing to make a run for it. She held his arms to the wall, taking his hands off her and couldn’t resist nibbling at his lower lip, drawing a rumbling moan out of him. She then took a step back, finally releasing him with a slight push and lost him in the darkness.

‘Hey!...’ he said, knocking something, probably a candleholder from the top of one of the hallway furniture, down with a bump. ‘W-what…? Where did you…?’

Sakura glided towards Tomoyo’s room, taking advantage of the noise he was making and before anyone decided to show up to check what the fuss was about, she held her breath, opening an aperture just wide enough for her to slip through.

Closing the door behind her, she leant down against the wood and released her breath, with weak knees. Sakura closed her eyes as Xiao Lang continued to call out for “Luyan” in the corridor and left out a ragged breath. The General would probably end up waking the whole house.

‘Sakura,’ Tomoyo called her, sitting up on the bed and muffling a yawn. ‘What happened?’ The concubine asked, getting up from the bed.

Sakura looked at her friend and shook her head while standing up. She didn’t want to talk about that.

‘Are you alright?’ Tomoyo inquired, with concern written all over her face.

Sakura nodded, her whole body still shaking. ‘I-I need to dress up,’ she muttered, flinching inward when Xiao Lang passed by the door, his voice like thunder. ‘You better go out there and calm him down.’

Tomoyo narrowed her eyes on Sakura, watching her friend disappear into the lavatory to retrieve her uniform, and let out a long sigh of resignation, before turning to the door to tend to the “feral wolf” roaming around the corridor.


 

Sakura was lying on her bed staring blankly at the ceiling. She knew she should be trying to get some sleep but couldn’t.

She felt troubled by what she had done and by what she allowed to happen earlier that morning. It had been foolish and there was no justification for her to have given in like that other than her own selfishness. To make things worse, whenever she closed her eyes, she could still recall the taste of Xiao Lang’s lips on hers, the feeling of his calloused palms exploring her body. And she couldn’t even lie to herself and pretend she hadn’t enjoyed it.

Admittedly, since coming back from Shanghai, she had started wondering what it would feel like to be a woman in Xiao Lang’s arms, mostly in the dead of the night, in those misty minutes that preceded sleep. However, it really hadn’t been her brightest idea to cross the General on the eve of their departure to battle; he’d been irascible the whole day, snapping at everyone in sight and she just knew the next few days would be equally painful. There wasn’t a worst possible time for her to give into those love fantasies…

She felt her breath catch in her throat at that thought and sat up on the bed, covering her face with her hands. That wasn’t possible! She couldn’t be in love with Xiao Lang... She just couldn’t!

That’s right! She wasn’t in love! It… it was probably just an infatuation; if anything at all.

Whatever it was, she couldn’t allow that to happen again. She’d been curious for a while but now her curiosity had been sated and… And anyway… Thinking about that was a waste of her time. She had more important things to worry about.

“Get a grip, Sakura!” She thought, patting her cheeks a couple times.

Letting herself fall back to the bed, Sakura covered her eyes with her arm. The might of the Chinese Army would be heading to the Forward Camps in less than a week, after that it would be only a matter of time till they met the enemies in battle.

Honestly, she was terrified of confronting the Huns again. Yes, it was true that she was better prepared now, after almost two years in the army, than she had been that first time. She was better equipped to defend herself and, most importantly, to defend her Emperor, her homeland, her people and those placed under her command.

She heaved a sigh and turned to her side, curling up while hugging her legs against her chest. She just couldn’t get rid of the lump that formed in her throat at the memory of Ban dying in her arms. She was well aware that not everybody would come back home to their families. She might not survive it, either. If only there was a way she could avoid all that death and pain somehow…

She sighed again, wondering if the only way for humanity to exist in the world was through violence and destruction. She wouldn’t shirk her duty. The Huns had invaded China and brought only chaos and havoc to that great land and to its simple folk. They were forcing their hand on the matter but even so…

She shook her head, lying on her back and staring at the ceiling. That was a moot point in any case and wasn’t the only thing bothering her.

Sakura couldn’t deny that she feared for her General’s life. Xiao Lang was formidable in combat, probably the best warrior in the whole China but he wasn’t immortal. She closed her eyes and pressed on them with her fingers. She already regretted Ban’s death, if something happened to another of Touya’s friends, she would never forgive herself.

Opening her eyes again, she sat at the edge of the bed with her feet on the ground and arms on her knees. She wearily ran a hand through her hair, deciding against tying it up again as she gazed at an empty space for a while.

If she happened to fall on the battlefield, she’d be cremated without any kind of ceremony along with many other soldiers due to her being young, unmarried and having no family to mourn her. It was actually sad to think about that, but she would literally disappear from the world without leaving a trace. Just like Ban.

It was probably better that way. Captain Kinomoto would go down as a hero instead of being unmasked as a traitorous nobody.

Heaving a sigh, her eyes locked on her shining new sword. Custom-made for Captain Kinomoto . Even though the General had decided against using her calculations to forge her new sword, it was still lighter than her previous one and a lot easier for her to handle. The stubborn man insisted on letting some room for her to grow into because Touya was still supposed to grow up and “it would be a waste of a good blade if they forged it only for Captain Kinomoto to outgrow the weapon in a couple of months” , as he put it. The problem was that she would never outgrow it. She would remain petite, no matter how much muscle she wound up developing. Her body would never be like that of a man's.

She sighed with slumped shoulders and buried her face in her hands. Deep down, she always knew that stunt would eventually come to an end. Touya’s lifespan had never been designed to last. Since coming back from Shanghai, she felt her control over the circumstances slipping through her fingers as if Xiao Lang might figure her secret at any moment now. She was honestly surprised she had been able to fool him for so long, already.

Her General was anything but stupid…

…And she needed to make the best of the little control she still had, measure her options and take a logical decision.

Getting up from the bed, she started pacing around trying to clear her head. Any choice would be out of her hands if she ended up dying in the coming battle and, at least, she could be satisfied with the thought of falling in an honourable way. Now, if she survived...

Maybe she could forge Touya’s death, get back to The Forbidden City after the battle and retrieve the money she has been stashing with Tomoyo. She had saved enough to buy a small property someplace isolated where she could make a living of working the land. She would need a new set of documents but that was something Tomoyo could easily help her with. It was not like the concubine didn’t have the means to help her or influence with some shady characters around the city.

Yes, she could start over as some other young man. Maybe she could enrol herself again and take on the arms as someone else. That would be nice. She was good at soldiering. She would have two more years fighting and training before needing to “die” again but that would be a piece of cake the second time around. Right?

She frowned, tossing herself back over the bed with her face against the mattress to muffle a dissatisfied groan. Starting over every two years wasn’t what she wanted. Not to mention that at some point her age would start showing up on her features.

Turning over, she opened a manic grin thinking that it might be fun to ask Tomoyo to go with her. Tomoyo could pretend to be her... wife, maybe? She laughed imagining the look on Tomoyo’s face if she were to ask her friend to be her make-believe mother. Though the dark-haired woman was quite a few years older than she, Tomoyo took great pride in her appearance and kept her real age well under wraps.

In any case, between the two of them, they had enough money to live comfortably somewhere else and Sakura could very well use her abilities to work as a bounty hunter. It was a frowned-upon line of work by the military but just as necessary, especially in remote locations.

Another possibility was to travel around the world without establishing herself anywhere. Being constantly on the move would make it easier to hide being a woman. Each day a new place, meeting new people. She would be always alone, though.

She let out a long wistful sigh. She just knew she would end up missing Xiao Lang more than she’d ever imagined possible. If spending a month apart from him while she remained in Shanghai had been lonely, never seeing him again would be... Well, she had no words to describe it, really. She might be able to meet up with Tomoyo whenever she came back to The Forbidden City, at least.

‘Dammit!’ she muttered through gritted her teeth, bothered by the slight pinprick of unshed tears in her eyes. She would just have to get used to being alone. It would be necessary and there was no reason to cry over this. Especially not over missing that idiotic General whose lips had set her body on fire just a couple hours before.

She shouldn’t have allowed that to happen. Why did she have to give in to her damn curiosity? His proximity had drawn her in like a moth to the flames and she ended up getting burned. It was so unfair that she was the only one to feel the fire.

She really needed to get away from that man as soon as possible and end with that charade before her curiosity got her in trouble; before her body betrayed her.

She needed to keep in her mind that, no matter how much General Li appreciated Captain Kinomoto, no matter how many times Xiao Lang claimed to be Touya’s friend, he owed nothing to Sakura .

And if he ever found out Touya was actually a woman, there was a bothersome certainty at the back of her mind telling her she’d lose her life by his hands.

That thought chased a chill down the back of her neck, flooring her back on here and now. She had to be the one to put an end to Touya’s existence. Otherwise, she’d end up facing the General inside one of The Forbidden City’s torture chambers. And she still had nightmares about the things he taught her to do in that place.


 

Captain Kinomoto halted Yin, her beautiful dusty-white mare, at the same time General Li pulled up his black stallion’s reins, forcing the animal into a full stop near the Officers’ tent.

They’d spent almost a fortnight encamped before the arrival of the hawk with a message from one of the watch-posts announcing that the Huns had made their move and initiated the siege to the Chifeng Palace. Their detachment immediately broke camp and headed to an agreed-upon checkpoint, just about a couple hours from where their ambush would effectively take place.

Right now, a final gathering between the Officers would take place to hone in any last minute aspects of the plan before setting out to the final leg of the journey that would, hopefully, put an end to all that meaningless killing.

The “hopefully” part was what gave Sakura the jittery feeling in her stomach. They were undoubtedly taking a huge risk following that course of action and, though the Huns had acted according to their predictions up till now, if anything went wrong –– if the battle went South and the Huns somehow managed to come out on top –– then she would’ve failed not only her General but her Emperor and herself. China would be put into a difficult position with almost no means to defend itself, once they’ve taken the brunt of their military forces to that battle. There was only a third of their total military strength protecting the Lord of Ten Thousand Years at the moment.

Looking to the side, she saw Xiao Lang getting down of his horse, the lithe gracefulness of his movements taking her breath away. She’d been notably and acutely aware of his presence and his every move since that early morning in Tomoyo’s establishment. It was almost as if she had developed a sixth sense that revolved around that man. It was a rather uncomfortable sensation to deal with, especially on the verge of a battle.

Shaking her head, she dismounted as well, following him inside the Officer’s tent beside some other Officers from their contingent, all along avoiding to even look at him.

Their detachment had been the one farther away from the meeting point and it had taken them half a day longer to get there, so it was no surprise that they were the last ones to arrive. As they approached the other Generals, Xiao Lang offered a situation report about their men and inquired about the rest of the troops before getting down to business.

‘The hawk we received have reported about the Huns moving into the Shāngu Valley in order to besiege the Chifeng Palace,’ Xiao Lang stated, looking around and meeting the eyes of Xue Lian. ‘Have we received any updates about the situation in the Valley?’

The other Officers in the tent turned to Xue Lian, refraining from providing an answer without the go-ahead from him. As the senior Officer on the field, it was his prerogative to take charge of the strategy meeting if he so pleased. The truth was that the elder outspoken man was not satisfied with the Emperor’s decision to send him to the battleground and was snapping at everyone for apparently no reason, so it was better not to provoke him.

‘Our last update was sent two days ago,’ General Xue grunted as he extended a stripe of a message to Li. ‘It seems like your protegè’s idea is actually coming through, General Li. You must be very proud,’ he muttered with gritting teeth. The hostility between the two Generals was no secret among the Army’s high echelon.

A self-satisfied grin appeared on Xiao Lang’s face even as he chose to abstain from replying, opting for focusing on the mission. ‘That’s no good at all. Two days is a long time. Many too things can change in a second’s notice on a battlefield,’ he mulled over the new information. ‘We’ll need to confirm the situation before heading out.’

‘And what about our men inside the Palace, General? Should we just abandon them?’ One Major half-growled an inquiry.

Xiao Lang regarded the man, utterly unimpressed, and turned to Captain Kinomoto with a raised eyebrow asking for an input.

Sakura cleared her throat. ‘They’re in a reinforced and superior station as of now. The siege has been laid for merely a week, which is well within our estimated reaction time. We, on the other hand, will be in a hazardous position, which will be made thousands of times more vulnerable if we have inaccurate information about the enemy’s status.’

General Xue rolled his eyes at Li’s look of satisfaction at the young Captain’s reply. He had to admit that the youngling had a good head on his shoulders and a keen mind for strategizing. It was just unfortunate that he’d ended up under Li’s tutelage. ‘A small scouting party would be able to get us the information we require and be back in a couple of hours,’ he suggested.

Xiao Lang nodded. ‘How many men?’

‘Not more than five,’ Xue Lian advised and dismissed the small assembly. ‘I’m sure General Li can take care of it. The rest of you make sure the men are ready to move as soon as we set a plan.’

‘Kinomoto, you’ll be in charge of the scouting unit,’ Xiao Lang determined, turning to face Touya. He trusted Touya’s abilities and knew he would pay attention to crucial details. ‘You know our men, chose the party. Take my spyglass with you.’

Sakura nodded, exiting the tent after the General.

In no time, Sakura was riding out through the Xiázhai passage with four other soldiers in order to scout their enemies.

As soon as she saw the top of the palace in the distance after a steep slope, she pulled Yin’s reins and brought her mare to an easy trot. ‘Whoa, whoa…’ she steadily gestured to the men following her to do the same as she entered the woodland nearby. She halted at the edge of the thicket of trees around them and surveyed the area ahead taking advantage of their position.

In front of them, the woods gave a wide berth into a Hun infested clearing all the way down to the North –– “Toward the Shāngu Valley,” she thought –– only interspaced by small groves and surrounded by white snow-covered mountains. Built at the side of the Southernmost mountain was the Chifeng Palace, with its stone walls and red roofs.

As was expected from their enemies, the Huns wasted no time with finesse while enclosing the palace, even if they still hadn’t succeeded at breaching its defences –– laying a siege, just as planning and springing an ambush was a matter of patience, after all. Several enemy troops were spread over the clearing, but they were still too far away to see specific settings, even with the help of Xiao Lang’s spyglass.

With her eyes, Sakura traced the tree outline that gave way to the glade. If they kept themselves covered by the woods, they’d be able to better look out the enemy distribution on the terrain.

‘Follow me, men,’ Dismounting her horse, she pulled the reins, guiding the huffing animal to a higher point of the forest that shielded them from enemy eyes. ‘And keep an eye out to make sure no one sees us.’

Taking out a piece of parchment, a brush and a flask of ink, she quickly sketched the layout of the land and started taking notes, pointing out points of interest –– their fortifications, the more crowded places, where they kept their mounts and their supplies. She also noticed that the Huns had the structure of a couple traction trebuchets under construction.

‘Clever! Very clever,’ she saw how they were cutting down the trees closest to the palace to build the siege equipment instead of having brought it with them. ‘Well, it’s a pity they’ll never get to finish them.’

‘We can go back, now,’ she declared after the nankin had dried out.

As she galloped over the narrow gorge of the Xiázhai passage to report back, an idea materialised in her mind about putting the pass to better use than in their original plan. It was too cramped a space for a large troop to quickly advance through there, but a small unit could make it in good time. With that, they could flank the Huns by both sides and help stop the Huns from retreating.

As they approached the camp, Sakura could feel the men’s anxiety on the reception they received. Those soldiers were ready to put an end to the slaughter going on for the past five years. As she reached the Officer’s tent, Yin hadn’t even fully stopped yet when she dismounted expertly, strutting toward her superiors with a proud gait.

‘They’re stationed at the valley and definitely came in force,’ she reported with a smirk and presented her sketch to Li.

‘Did they actually believe our decoy?’ Xue Lian asked astounded, as if only now fully accepting that the battle could be won.

‘Yes, Sir,’ Sakura nodded, turning back to Xiao Lang who was reading her notes and saw the moment he widened his eyes.

‘Is this correct? They’re building their trebuchets?’ He looked at the Captain with a raised eyebrow.

She nodded. ‘And they don’t seem to have brought much in terms of heavy artillery, either.’

The Senior Officers smiled, exchanging vicious looks. ‘We’ll crush them, once and for all!’ Declared a General.

The Officers turned back to the tent, already strategizing with Sakura’s map in hands.

‘I also had an idea to thwart the Hun’s withdraw that I’d like to run through you, Sir,’ she said, placing herself beside her General.

‘No need. I trust you, Kinomoto,’ Xiao Lang said with a lopsided smirk. ‘You can present it inside, directly to the old geezers. Now let’s go. We have a war to win.’

To be continued.

Chapter Text

 

 

‘Are you nervous?’

Xiao Lang’s voice startled Sakura out of her meditative state. They had been quietly riding side by side for the last hours, thick fog clouded their path, making it difficult to see more than five metres in front of them. They were aiming for a stealthy approach as their troops were advancing at an easy pace with only the waning moon and the stars to guide them, the horses’ hooves barely making a sound on the silence of the night.  

Shrugging lightly, Sakura grunted something noncommittal as an answer to his question.

‘You don’t need to worry so much,’ The General went on after a few minutes of silence and Sakura wondered if his sudden chatting mood wasn’t as much for his benefit as it seemed to be for hers. ‘It’ll be easier now. You’ve faced them before and you haven’t even been ready back then.’

‘I already know tha–’

‘That doesn’t mean you can be careless, though,’ he interrupted her, his voice stern and serious. ‘That’s why I want you beside me at all times,’ he commanded.

Sakura frowned, gritting her teeth. What was he getting at with that? Any other day, she’d have no qualms about following his orders. She actually would rather fight with someone she trusted at her back, but if she wanted to flee the site at the end of the battle without drawing attention, she needed to move away from the General during the fight.

Xiao Lang watched as his pupil’s face contorted with displeasure and sighed. ‘I’m well aware that you’re agile and smart, Kinomoto, but I don’t want you risking yourself unnecessarily. Don’t try and measure strength with the enemy. You’re still not strong enough to do that.’

She frowned, looking straight ahead and biting the inside of her cheek to avoid replying to his unreasonable overprotectiveness. ‘I’ve understood it the first three times you said that, Sir.’

‘Glad to hear it,’ he said satisfied with her answer. ‘Other than that, don’t show any mercy to the enemy. And don’t hesitate.’

‘When have you known me to hesitate, Sir?’ Sakura rolled her eyes, annoyed at his condescending voice tone.

The General smirked and raised an ironic eyebrow. ‘I remember having to shake you out of a trance in the middle of a battle once upon a time.’

‘That was a long time ago. I’ve changed since then,’ she replied, trying to ignore the shudder running down her spine at the memory of crying over Ban’s body at the top of Mount Fuy.

Another half an hour of silent ride led them to the edges of the Hun encampment. The enemy Sentinels had been eliminated beforehand, which allowed them to approach unnoticed and without a hindrance.

At the opposite side of the clearing, the Chifeng Palace’s lanterns and torches were faintly seen. The tension amongst the men thick enough to cut with a sword.

‘Are you ready, General Li?’ An older General who was in charge of the cannons inquired.

‘As ready as I’ll ever be,’ Xiao Lang said, nodding in his direction as they split their ways. As the younger General on the field, Xiao Lang had been in charge of leading the cavalry and would be the only such Officer in the thick of things.

They had maybe another hour before the sunrise started dissipating the mist around them and had to use that time to position their troops. Up till now, their plan had been full of intricacies and deceptions, but for this part, everything was as clear-cut and straightforward as it could be.

First, they’d attack the enemy’s mounts, their supplies and the officers’ tents from the main passage at the Shangu Valley with the cannons. The cannons would be the sign to the archers at the Palace to rain down on the enemies in order to help thin out their numbers and then, finally, the cavalry would charge to engage the Huns in direct combat.

The men stationed at the Xiazhai passage were to remain hidden until second order, only picking out those who tried to flee the battle. That specific point was planned trying not to press the Huns into desperation and to make them believe that there was a road to safety available. It was important to keep in mind the knowledge that, when desperate, men fight twice as fiercely. After all, as the old saying went “Birds and beasts when brought to bay will use their claws and teeth.”

When the time came, everything happened very quickly and suddenly, even if Sakura knew what was to come. With their swords drawn, General Li and Captain Kinomoto pressed the assault downhill against their foes, an entire platoon riding at their heels. All around the place, other units followed suit from their positions with the objective to scatter the Huns’ attention.

Sakura hardly registered the weight of her own sword in her hands or the pressure she kept on Yin’s reins turning her knuckles white. Later, she’d remember that battle as one of the bloodiest and gruesomest events of her life and the screams of pain and despair over the clank of metal on metal would keep her awake on several nights to come. But time to dwell on those details would come after; the most important thing right now was to focus on surviving and defeating their foes.

Smoke from the previous explosions and the fire burning down part of the encampment let Sakura bleary-eyed as she rode through the enemy ranks, cutting up them and stomping them down as she went. Absentmindedly, she could hear the cadence beat of drums issuing orders more efficiently than voices could.

At her peripheral sight, she noticed Xiao Lang being dropped down from his horse and tumbling to the ground. She immediately pulled Yin’s reins, careening her way and thrust her foot squarely onto the back of a Hun who tried to get the jump onto her General as he went back to his feet. Without a second thought, she dismounted at Xiao Lang’s back as they proceeded to fight on foot.

‘Fancy meeting you here, General,’ she quipped, slightly out of breath while clutching at the handle of her sword.

‘Heh,’ Xiao Lang snorted with laughter, panting at her back. ‘Keep it up, Captain, and see if I ever save your life again.’

‘Ooh,’ she snickered, dodging an incoming attack and swinging her blade straight against the enemy’s kneecaps. ‘Big talk from the man who decided to take a nap, Sir.’

With her mind working at a thousand thoughts per seconds and her Commanding Officer at her back, Sakura adjusted her senses to the dawn light breaking over the snow-covered mountaintops.

‘Yeah, yeah,’ The General smirked, smudging some of the enemy blood that speckled his face with the back of his hand. ‘Let’s win this war, Kinomoto…’ And with those words, the time to banter and play around was over. There’s no place for hesitation and nonchalance in a battlefield.


 

After the battle, staring at the still carcasses spreading over the once white clearing, Sakura waited for the sense of triumph to hit her. Instead, all she could feel was the sheer weariness settling over her bones. The eerie sound of nothingness a sharp contrast to the endless hours of pained screams and dying groans. The carnage in front of them was enough to fuel her nightmares for the rest of her life.

The shrill sound of a gong broke through the stillness, making her shiver as if waking up after a long restless night of sleep. She watched with some degree of detachment as the palace’s monks started perusing the bodies, separating those who would go through the funerary rites and those who would be burned along with the enemies. She didn’t envy their task.

Taking a sharp breath, she pressed a trembling hand against the right side of her abdomen, feeling the bloody dampness seep into her under-armour. She was still bleeding and needed to look after the injury or risk passing out from loss of blood, which would be bad for her plan to keep her head attached to her neck. 

She suppressed a snort of derision at her thoughts. That should be easy enough now that the battle was over, right?

As if to ask her question, Xiao Lang stopped by her side. Sakura wasn’t sure how she knew it was him, she just knew. And sure enough, there he was in all his glory, also covered in cuts, scrapes and bruises, pulling the reins of both their horses.

‘It’s over,’ She couldn’t resist uttering, looking back to the sea of bodies.

The General kept his eyes on the monks and heaved a sigh, looking as exhausted as she felt. ‘Yes, Touya. It’s finally over.’

With him by her side, Sakura finally allowed her shoulders to slump and closed her eyes, breathing in the sulphur from the cannons and the smoke from the fires that were yet to be put out. She fell to her knees, swaying her body slightly as she recited a mantra for the departed.

Xiao Lang only watched as his pupil honoured the dead in that small way. He admired Touya for his thoughtfulness and, if he were a different man with different beliefs, he might even have joined the young Captain in his tribute. Even so, he remained beside Touya while he prayed for the souls of those who hadn’t survived.

After what seemed like an eternity, the Captain stood up and gazed at the General. Xiao Lang took an account of his pupil’s numerous scratches all the way from his face to his abdomen. He frowned, looking sour and shook his head, passing Touya the reins to his white mare. ‘You need to take care of that injury, immediately,’ He waited a moment to make sure the Captain would be able to mount before doing the same. ‘If you had remained by my side as I ordered you to do, this wouldn’t have happened.’

Sakura groaned and kept the pressure on the injury, but didn’t say anything. What could she say? She had, indeed, been hurt while trying to get away from the General and he, undoubtedly, noticed that she had moved away. It was no surprise, really, once she had tried to lose him more than once by the end of the fighting. Damn that stubborn man and his overprotectiveness! He unknowingly hindered her plans of “killing” Touya in that battle. It was as if he knew she was up to something and had purposefully kept her by his side.

She turned Yin toward the Chifeng Palace. ‘I’ll do just that,’ she said through her teeth, trying not to wince by the jostle of the horse’s movement. ‘I don’t need a keeper. I can take care of myself. Plus, you also need to dress those wounds.’

‘None of my injuries is as serious as the one on your abdomen. I’ll be alright,’ he dismissed her worries as they made their way through the Palace’s gate.

‘Mine isn’t as serious, either,’ she replied, shrugging and trying to downplay the seriousness of what she knew to be a somewhat deep cut. ‘It’s just a flesh-wound, Sir.’

The General lifted a sceptical eyebrow and Sakura looked the other way, keeping her head high while trying to prove her point.

‘I’ll take a round to see the state of our troop and see how our men are faring,’ She started to walk away, trying to find an isolated place to look at her wound.

‘Go see a healer, Kinomoto. That’s an order!’ Xiao Lang commanded at her back.

Sakura kept walking past a crowd and found an isolated corner, near the barracks where she allowed herself to lean against the building, making pressure against the wound before untying the stripes of her breastplate. She attempted to take out the heavy suit, but the movement made her wheeze out of pain and she almost lost her grip on the wall. 

’Dammit!’ She grumbled, taking a deep breath in order not to lose consciousness.

‘I told you to get that wound looked after,’ Xiao Lang’s voice at her back startled her back to attention. The General had followed her, it seemed. Shaking his head, Xiao Lang helped her out of the armour.

Sakura couldn’t even complain because she needed to get the protection gear out of the way if she wanted to cleanse and bandage the injury.

‘Come on, I’ll take you to the medical ward to have that looked at,’ he said, pointing out at her injured side and made to grab her forearm.

‘No need, Sir,’ She flinched away from his grasp. ‘I can handle it myself.’

Xiao Lang furrowed his brows in an expression of disapproval and opened his mouth to counter his pupil’s statement. He was ready to drag the stubborn kid to go see a healer if need be when a soldier approached them.

‘General Li, I’ve been looking for you everywhere, Sir,’ The man, clearly a messenger of sorts, said slightly out of breath. ‘General Xue has summoned the surviving high officers to debrief about the battle.’

The General sighed and nodded his acknowledgement, before glancing o last time toward Touya. ‘Get that treated, Captain,’ he ordered once more, making it clear that that wasn’t a suggestion as he turned to follow the messenger. ‘Let’s go.’

Sakura watched the General walk away and looked around, noticing the soldiers crowd the palace’s garth while feeding the mounts or helping out other men with minor injuries. She could probably get the material she needed there, but it would make her no good unless she could access her injury in a more secluded place.

Moving sluggishly, she went over to a soldier who had some bandages and an assortment of ointments and salves and grabbed the material before crossing the second gate threshold. She hesitated at the thought of moving to the innards of the palace when she was supposed to be getting out of there.

‘One step at a time,’ she muttered, clutching tightly to her side. She had to dress her wound first, otherwise, her fake death would turn into an actual death and that was the last thing she wanted.

From there, she limped her way toward the Palace’s temple. With any luck, all the monks would be out in the battlefield sorting through the dead and she would have the privacy needed to treat her injury. Leaning against the temple’s door, she closed her eyes for a second and felt her breath hitch when it became increasingly harder to keep herself awake. She shook her head, aware that she’d needed to clean and dress her injury before allowing herself to rest for a bit.

At entering the building, she was immediately assaulted by the strong scent of incense. With faltering steps, she moved to the farthest most hidden corner of the room and let herself slide with her back against the wall. She then proceeded to open her uniform and assessed the wound.

‘Shit,’ she said through gritted teeth. Even with all the blood she’d lost, she tried to be positive and not think of it as being too serious, but the damn thing wasn’t a simple wound; it was deep gash.

Taking a deep breath, she bit a leather sash from her uniform and cleansed the cut with one of the bandages she took with her, groaning and sobbing through her tears at the lancinating pain. Breath coming in short pants and trembling hands, she smeared the cut with the salve and almost fainted due to the blazing feeling of the plaster acting over the laceration.

Taking a deep breath to control the convulsive gasps coursing through her broken body, she dressed up the wound the best way she could and closed her uniform. She let herself slip to the side, curled up on the ground as she cried out in pain.

Remaining like that, she couldn’t say if she fell asleep or simply lost her consciousness.


 

Sakura stirred up at the sound of footsteps echoing through the temple’s great hall. She quietly moaned, rubbing her eyes, and wakened with a sharp gasp, her hand immediately going to her wound as she tried to sit up. With unfocused wide eyes, she noticed the door opening and closing before her mind registered the presence of a pair of monks beside her.

‘What are you doing here, soldier?’ one of the monks inquired, offering her a bowl with some kind of lukewarm broth.

‘Forgive me, sir,’ She said, gratefully accepting the bowl. ‘I came over here to pray for those who’ve fallen in battle, but I think I was too tired and fell asleep,’ she explained, taking a sip of the broth and choking through a coughing fit at the hideous taste.

‘There, there. Take it easy, boy,’ One of the monks gave her a few back blows between her shoulder blades, before taking a good look at her face. ‘You look feverish, kid.’

‘Don’t worry about me, sir,’ She stood to her feet with slightly wobbly legs. ‘I didn’t mean to impose on you. I thank you for the broth, but I should go back to my unit now.’

It was dark and silent outside as Sakura moved through the shadows back to the outer gate, trying to remain unseen. She approached the house where the medical ward had been set up and saw something different there. It took a few more moments before her mind took notice of the several covered bodies which had been aligned on the outside of the building. It seemed like some of the soldiers who initially survived the fighting had perished before the day was over.

The pain dulled her senses, making her almost unfeeling as her mind came up with a new plan to disappear. She needed to find a young slim corpse who could be mistaken with her, place her Captain identification on it and cause enough damage that it would be impossible to recognize it before getting out of sight.

She quickly calculated how long it would take her to get to the stables. She knew her horse hadn’t sustained an injury and by now Yin would be well-rested and well-fed. All she needed was to find the perfect decoy and she would be free. With a torch in hand, she took a deep breath and looked around to make sure nobody would see her, before approaching the lined bodies.

Floundering, she gritted her teeth and shook her head, trying to dissipate the daze from her mind. 

‘Crap,’ she let out, blinking away the blurriness from her eyes that prevented her from finding a good substitute. Keeping the pressure on the wound, she kept looking at the corpses. The rancid, cloying odour that made her nauseous, wasn’t helping any. She could honestly say that she had seen enough dead bodies to last her a lifetime. Not that it was the worst thing she’d ever seen in the army but she was exhausted, injured, hungry and just wanted to get away from all that.

Briefly covering her eyes, she realised the man at the temple was right. She did have a fever.

‘There you are!’ Xiao Lang’s voice startled her. ‘Where have you been?’ He demanded. The adamant note in his voice made her goggle at him as the General stalked his way toward her. ‘I’ve been searching for you for hours! I even thought something serious had happened and you ended up here with the dead! Are you insane? Why did you… Where did you go?’

‘I… I was at the temple,’ she answered, frowning at his reaction.

An annoyed snort escaped him as he cut the air with his hand. ‘And couldn’t you have let me know?’

‘You were debriefing General Xue and…’ She started explaining, but he was having none of that.

‘That’s no excuse for your disregard! I gave you an order and you disobeyed me,’ he snapped at her. ‘I told you to stay close to me and not to take any risks. But at the first chance you’ve got what did you do? Disappeared on me!’

Despite all the anger in his voice and countenance, there was a troubled sense of relief in his attitude, as well. She knew... she’d always known that her General was terrible at showing how he felt at any circumstance and often chose to act tough, instead. Of course, knowing that he cared enough about Touya to get that concerned only made things even more difficult on her end. She had wondered whether just vanishing like that wouldn’t be a cowardly move but deep down she knew it was the only way to give Xiao Lang some kind of closure. He would never accept her decision to leave, otherwise.

'I won't be going back there,' she started feebly, her mouth running off against her better judgement. 'I'm not going back to the Capital. I’m not fit to serve anymore.'

'What are you talking about? You were hardly injured,' Xiao Lang looked at her as if she had lost her mind. 'It's not like if you had lost an arm or a leg. Your injury won't even leave you with a limp. Why would you be unfit?'

It was probably not her brightest idea but she wasn’t really in a place to think things through. She was feverish, her mind was foggy and all she could think about was the fact that Captain Kinomoto couldn't return to The Forbidden City. Touya should've died in that battle and once that hadn't happened, then he had to quit the military.

'Because I don't want to fight anymore,’ she simply said.

‘You may not have been critically hurt, but you obviously aren’t thinking clearly,’ Xiao Lang made fun of her decision, staring straight at her.

‘I am serious, Sir,’ she replied, jutting her chin up in a challenge. ‘I’ve actually been thinking about that for a while now.’

‘Are you kidding me?’ He inquired, all traces of humour gone from his voice and eyes.

‘No, Sir,’ She kept her gaze locked on his with an unblinking kind of focus. ‘I’m quitting the army. When you return to The Forbidden City, I’ll follow my own way.’

‘You can’t quit, Kinomoto!’ He insisted, taking a step closer to her and grabbing her arm.

‘I’m not strong enough, General,’ she claimed, clenching her fists and trying not to shudder at the way he was manhandling her. With all their familiarity, she'd almost forgotten how that man could be intimidating.

‘That’s no reason! You’re still a boy! Give it a year and you’ll feel differently, I’m sure of it,’ despite his frustration, Xiao Lang was trying not to shake her too hard, obviously keeping her injury in mind.

Sakura bit on her inner cheek and shook her head. ‘I’ve already decided and won’t change my mind.’

‘I taught you everything you know, Kinomoto. And if I say that you have a gift, then you better believe it.’ The infuriated glint in his eyes made Sakura shiver out of fear. ‘I’ve never met anyone with a more logical war-oriented mind. Don’t throw it all away because you got a little scared by the last fight.’

‘That’s your problem, General,’ She huffed, pulling her arm out of his grasp and taking a step back. ‘But I don’t care what you think!’

Without waiting for him to reply, Sakura turned around and started walking to the stables. There was no need to hide now that the General had already seen her. She briefly wondered whether or not she should have stayed hidden in the temple but there was no point dwelling on “what-ifs” now. It was what it was. 

Objectively she knew the General wasn’t buying that story about her wanting to abandon the army. If she had a say in the matter, she’d be a soldier till her dying day. It was what she was good at, after all. However, with the choice out of her hands, she’d rather be branded as a cowardly soldier than a brave dead woman.

‘You’ll only leave over my dead body,’ Xiao Lang hissed at his pupil. He hadn’t spent all that time teaching the kid only to have his work wasted in a fit.

‘Don’t be so overdramatic, Sir.’ Sakura heaved a sigh, looking around to see if they had attracted any attention and turned to look at the General who had followed her. ‘I can’t stay in the army, General. Please, don’t make me explain my reasons.’

‘You’ll have to do better than that to convince me, Kinomoto,’ he sneered at his pupil with a raised eyebrow. ‘I know you. I know you’re not a coward and that you enjoy being a Captain. So what's this really about, huh?’

That’s what Sakura had feared all along. She knew she wouldn’t be able to run from the truth for much longer. If there was something she had learned a long time ago, while still living with the Yangs was that "lies don’t travel far". Her lie had taken her further than she could ever imagine, had enabled her to see and do things she’d never be allowed otherwise. She didn’t want to keep lying but there was no way to come clean with the General and admit that she’d been deceiving him all that time. He wouldn’t understand. It was best if Xiao Lang got disappointed with his protegè than if he found out that the person he’d esteemed so much was a woman.

‘I'm tired of all this death,' she said, shaking her head. 'I want a peaceful life -- to work the land somewhere and constitute a family.'

The General crossed his arms over his chest with a deep frown. ‘And just whose idea was that?’ He ran his hand through his hair and started pacing like a caged beast. He suddenly stopped as if hit by a realisation. ‘This was Daidouji’s suggestion, wasn’t it? You’re in love with that whore.’

‘Don’t talk about her like that!’ Sakura snapped at him, knowing that it would only confirm his supposition, but she wouldn’t allow him to insult her friend. Tomoyo was so much more than just a concubine. She was smart and driven and a survivor, just like Sakura herself.

‘Are you really willing to give up a bright future, a brilliant career for a woman like that?’ Xiao Lang said with a contemptuous smile and with a cruel gleam in his eyes. ‘I won’t allow you to make such a mistake.’

Now Sakura was just getting annoyed at him. She always hated that self-important side of him. It never failed to anger her and now he was trying to tell her how she should live her own life? As if her opinion didn’t matter. To hell with that! She was her own master. She was a Captain. Her only unquestionable duty was with the Emperor and no one else. Not even her General had the right to decide her fate. ‘You’re not entitled to stop me from leaving, General.’

‘You think it’s this easy to abandon your duties, Kinomoto?’ He challenged her out of spite. He hated it when people disregarded his authority and Touya knew that. ‘How would you like to be demoted and spend some time on the Palace’s dungeon charged with desertion?’

‘You forget that I know my duties and I know my rights, General. It won’t be desertion because the battle is already over. You can’t order me around anymore.’

With those words, she turned to leave, but the General was having none of that. Her arm was held in a vicelike grip.

‘Let go of me!’ She demanded, trying to get away from his grasp. The General was not only stronger than her but had fewer injuries hindering his movements as he pulled her with him.

She couldn’t remain there. Especially not with the threat of going to prison over her head. Watching his profile as he tried to drag her out of the stables, she deliberately punched his arm, making him jerk away and release her.

‘Do you really think you can fight me and win?’ He mocked her, crossing his arms over his chest. ‘Don’t be foolish, Kinomoto. You’re hurt.’

‘I said I don’t want to be a soldier anymore,’ she grunted, taking a defensive stance in front of him. ‘Why can’t you just abide by my decision?’ 

‘Because that’s not what I want,’ he replied with an insufferable smugness designed to ruffle her feathers. He smirked at seeing her bare her teeth and growl. ‘You can make your own decisions when you grow a beard. Now come on,’ he attempted to seize her again, but Sakura wasn’t about to let that happen.

Diving away from his reach, she fended him off and swiped at his legs. Caught off guard, he fell on his bottom and she took the opportunity to try and escape.

‘You’ll regret that, Kinomoto,’ The General sprang back up, hard on her heels.

It took him only a few steps to reach for her once more, since her wound didn’t allow her to be as swift as usual, and he held tightly to her uniform. Still not giving up, Sakura turned around and kicked him on his nether parts, making him go cross-eyed and yelp out of pain. Even with the throbbing ache, he refused to let go of his pupil, only tightening the grip on Sakura’s clothes.

‘Dammit, General! Let me go!’ Sakura bellowed, thrashing around and no longer caring about who would hear them.

Xiao Lang tossed Touya against a stall, easily lifting the Captain up by the collar.

Sakura held his wrists, jerking around and trying to get rid of his grip.

Xiao Lang opened a cruel smile. Just a good squeeze. It was all he needed to teach Touya a lesson he would never forget. Partly recovered from his pupil’s low blow, he took his free hand to the top of the boy’s thighs, expecting to hear him scream in agony.

‘W-what?’ He stammered in confusion when his hand came up empty.

Sakura stopped thrashing and turned pale, her mouth agape and eyes wide at the feeling of the General’s hand in her most private parts. ‘Oops…’ It was all Sakura was able to say as Xiao Lang lost his grip on her and watched her collapse on the ground, taking a step back.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

‘W-what?’ Xiao Lang stopped and stared at his pupil with wide eyes and raised eyebrows as he clenched his hands around where his manhood was supposed to be.

Touya had stopped trying to get away from his grasp, turning as pale as a ghost while opening and closing his mouth like a fish out of water. The kid’s green eyes were wide in panic as his breathing came out in rapid shallow breaths.

Xiao Lang lost his grip on the… the creature in front of him and took a hesitant step back. The General was unsure of what was happening there.

‘Wh-What are you?’ He said with a stammer and a nervous twitch in his left eye.

Sakura looked at him with a raised eyebrow. “Is he really going to make me say it?” She took a deep breath and considered telling him... something else. That she was a eunuch, maybe, or… 

She shook her head. She knew the General was stubborn enough that if he was still refusing to see the truth after touching the evidence, he’d prefer to believe some preposterous lie, instead. She was the one fed up with the secrets, after all.

‘You ought to have it figured out, General,’ She cleared her throat to try and get rid of some of the roughness she usually forced into Touya’s voice, but already knew, by her time spent with Tomoyo, that some lingering hoarseness was to be expected. ‘I’m a woman,’ she said, trying to project a false sense of calm which she was far from feeling.

‘What did you say?’ He creased his brow and twisted his mouth in shocked disbelief, his eyes moving frantically from one side to another, still trying to come up with another explanation. Xiao Lang wanted, no, he hoped… He needed that to be a misunderstanding, some kind of hallucination.

Sakura closed her eyes and breathed in with trepidation. ‘I’m a woman and not a man, Sir.’

The General’s face showed a huge spectrum of emotions; so many that Sakura could hardly keep track of them all. It shifted all the way from incredulity to resentment to anger. ‘What kind of sick joke is this?’

Sakura’s eyes darted around in a calculating manner, knowing that she would have only one chance to escape him and only if she played her cards right. ‘There’s no joke here, General.’ She squared her shoulders, facing him with unblinking eyes.

It was almost funny to watch such a self-assured man not knowing what to do or think like that. Though, as it was to be expected, given his character, he soon turned to the most simplistic emotion he could deal with at the moment. He flared up toward her with a flushed face and furious eyes.

In that split second, Sakura felt terrified. Not even on their first meeting she had been frightened out of her wits like that. His movements sprouted a hasty reaction out of her as he grabbed her by the wrist before she could escape.

‘Are you saying you are a woman?’ He hissed, pulling her closer to him as he painfully wrung her arm. ‘Are you trying to tell me that you made a fool out of me this whole time?’

She groaned, trying to get rid of his grasp. ‘I had no other choice.’

Xiao Lang scowled at her, gritting his teeth. He didn’t want to accept the evidence. He felt like he couldn’t trust his senses. He couldn’t believe what his fingers touched… or rather failed to touch. Kinomoto was just too bright to be a woman. Pressing the squirming Captain against the closer stall, he then ripped the buttons off his uniform top.

Caught by surprise, Sakura didn’t exactly know how to react, torn between trying to escape and covering herself up. She tossed and turned, attempting to get away from him, but he had the advantage of being stronger and not being injured. As it was, she had the feeling her wound had reopened and started bleeding again.

Xiao Lang held her tightly against the wall, gripping her wrists with one hand and using his knee to hold back her legs so that she wouldn’t kick him again. With his free hand, he opened up her uniform, frowning at the sight of the sashes covering her breasts.

‘Let go of me!’ Sakura demanded, watching him with wide-eyed desperation.

Xiao Lang said nothing as his fingertips lightly brushed over the bandage on her abdomen before moving to the compressed volume on her chest. Even seeing Touya like that, it was still hard to believe. How could a girl make a fool out of him for so long?

The General suddenly reached for the throwing knife Sakura always carried at her ankle, making her jerk from side to side at the possibility that he would execute her right there.

‘Be quiet!’ Xiao Lang grumbled impatiently as he slammed her against the wall.

He made fast work of the fabric covering her breasts and, at the sight of her breasts freed from constriction, he let her go. He stepped back and shook his head with a strange mix of disappointment and perplexity in his face.

Sakura hugged herself, closing her uniform tightly and staring at him dangerously resentful at his gall.

‘You are a girl…’ he said, at last, staring at her bright green eyes. ‘How is that possible? You can’t be a girl...’

‘And why not, General?’ She inquired with a deep frown. ‘Is it really that hard to believe that a woman can be as smart as a man? Smarter even…’

‘What kind of a freak are you?’ He bristled, glaring at her.

Sakura straightened up her body, jutting out her chin in a display of false spunk. ‘Just because I’m intelligent, now I’m a freak?’ She sneered, making him bare his teeth. ‘I’d forgotten how little regard you hold for women.’

He brought up his hand and slapped her across her cheek, causing Sakura to stumble back.

‘Lower your gaze,’ he growled at her.

Sakura licked the corner of her lips, distinguishing the bitter metallic taste of blood in her mouth. In spite his aggression, though, she refused to yield and raised her face once more. ‘So now that you know the truth, I can’t look you in the eyes? You always heeded every word out of Touya’s mouth, but you don’t want to hear what I have to say?’

He was fuming at her impertinence and raised his hand to hit her again, but stopped himself at the defying look in her eyes. Those eyes… Those green eyes that so many times reminded him of… His eyes went as wide as saucers and he grabbed her by the arm, his other hand gripping her face to examine it closely. Letting go of her face, he pulled the leather strap holding her hair tied and watched in a daze as the auburn strands fell over her shoulders.

He let go of her as if suddenly burned, but unable to stop staring at her. ‘It’s you …’

‘Aren’t you satisfied, General? You’ve finally found me,’ she gloated at the perplexity she could see on his face. ‘Wasn’t that what you wanted?’

They engaged in a staring match, both with their breaths coming out in short pants out of pure irritation. The only sound around them that of the snorting horses and stamping of hooves in the early morning.

‘Oh, how you’ve must’ve laughed at me seeing me turn Shanghai upside d-…’ he said with a flushing face and throbbing veins in his neck.

She interrupted him. ‘I told you on the very first day that it would be in vain.’

The General frowned, taking her in from head to toe. That girl had made a fool out of him. What should he do? He craved for twisting that little neck. Maybe if he ended her, he’d be able to erase the shame of falling for her machinations for so long.

Sakura watched him carefully. She knew he had to be controlling his temper and that she shouldn’t be trying to provoke him but at the same time, she wasn’t sure that allowing the General to think clearly was a good idea. Her punishment, when applied, would be that of a traitor. In her head, she started to recite every single rule she’d broken in her time in the army – she knew that list by heart, after all.

Looking around, she located the bay where her mare was resting and cast about for anything she could use to defend herself against the General while holding tightly at her sore side. If… No, when he lashed out against her, she had to be ready to run. She could only imagine what dark thoughts were running through that man’s mind right now.

In spite all her awareness of her surroundings and the knowledge that the General would move soon, he still managed to get her by surprise when he finally sprung to get her. Startled, Sakura had stepped back to get away from him but was blocked by the stable wall behind her. The wall she knew was there. “Stupid! Stupid!” She berated herself for allowing him to corner her out of shock. She unwittingly made it harder for her to escape.

‘When I’m through with you, you’ll wish you never were born, Kinomoto,’ he snarled at her through bared teeth and roughly pinned her against the wall, making her wound twinge.

She let out a groan as all air left her lungs due to his merciless manhandling of her; her face contorted in severe pain.

‘You must’ve thought you were very clever, huh girl? Did you think I wouldn’t eventually find out?’

Sakura wheezed heavily, still catching her breath. ‘Yes, I am very clever. I’m even smarter than you!’ she growled, struggling against his hold of her. There was no doubt now that her injury was bleeding again, as attested by the sharp pain in her side. She felt her eyes burning, in part from grief, partly from pain and partly from disappointment, but she refused to allow the General see her cry. In her flailing, she somehow managed to elbow his jaw. ‘You should’ve allowed Touya to die, General!’

And just like that, it was as if something finally snapped inside of him. He tightened his grip on her arms and jerked her around. ‘You’re the worst kind of vipers there is. If you’re so clever, then tell me, how do we deal with vipers?’

Sakura shrank back, her eyes wide in dread.

Holding her still, the man grabbed her by the hair, making her whine in pain; a dangerous look in his amber eyes. ‘I would love to kill you right now, but death isn’t even close to what you deserve!’

If she had thought she was scared before, she had no words to describe how terrified she felt right now. He was seeing red, completely out of himself. Sakura wasn’t sure if the hatred he felt was aimed at her or at the whole situation they found themselves. Not that it mattered. If she didn’t leave that place right at this moment, she’d die at his hands as soon as he was through with whatever punishment he thought she deserved.

There was an agitated snorting and a shrill neigh from the horse in the stall nearest to them and the minute distraction was all she needed.

She twisted and turned until she freed one of her legs from his constraint. The sudden lash was on target as her knee hit right between his legs again; this time it had been strong enough to make him release his grip on her, doubling over himself. As she tumbled down, she bent her body, using her arms to sling her back up and aimed a kick at his head.

The General’s reflexes kicked in and he was able to avoid the worst of the blow, being hit on the shoulder, instead. He lost his balance, anyway, stooping on the floor, still groaning because of the pain in his lower bits.

Sakura tried to use the opportunity to run, but Xiao Lang was able to latch on to her ankle, making her collapse on her face. She tried to kick him again, but he held her legs in a vicelike grip.

‘Let me go!’ She commanded, squirming around.

He didn’t say anything –– not that he didn’t have anything to say or that he’d usually let her have the last word, but because he was still recovering from her last blows in.

Her thrashing around caused one of the wooden buckets used to fill up the water-troughs to fall down. Grabbing it with trembling hands, she turned around, bashing it against the General’s head with all her strength.

She crawled away from him and stood up on unsteady legs. Without looking back, she mounted on Yin riding the white mare away from the stables. She pressed her pace even before passing through the palace’s gates, praying to any entity above that the sentinels wouldn’t notice anything too out of place with her. if she had any luck, they’d think that her rush was due to having received an urgent order of some kind.

Sakura rode desperately for hours, without rest. She didn’t look back fearing that, no matter how far she went, the General would be right behind her. Only when Yin started to show signs of exhaustion, she pulled tightly on the reins, bringing the mount to a trotting pace and looked over her shoulder. When she didn’t saw anybody, she finally brought her mount to a halt.

‘It’s alright, Yin,’ she whispered to her horse caressing the greyish mane. ‘Everything is gonna be alright.’

She made to dismount, but her legs were shaking and, unable to support her own weight, she fell to the ground. She curled up on her side, a choked sob tore from her throat as she allowed the tears to flow down her face. She was in so much pain. Not only physical, but the last events also made her feel as if she was broken inside.

Yin got closer, snorted and nudged her shoulder affectionately as if sensing her distress.

Sakura let herself stay there, as her sorrow rendered her too weak and too disheartened to stand up.


 

The first thing Sakura noticed when she opened her eyes was the faintly illuminated dark-wooden ceiling above her head. She sat up abruptly, the movement making her sides sting, as she tried to figure out where she was and what had happened.

Then she heard a soothing voice speak from the other side of the room. ‘Ah! You’re finally awake, dear.’

Sakura turned to the side, taken aback at the sight of a beautiful strange woman with milky-white skin, cinnamon-coloured eyes and long reddish-brown hair pulled back in a ponytail by a white ribbon that ran down her back. She was wearing a simple white with red accents hanfu.

‘Uh, I don’t…’ Sakura stammered, feeling her mouth dry. ‘Where, where am I?’

The woman stood up from her seat and sashayed toward the bed where Sakura was lying down, gently placing her hand on her forehead to check for a fever. Due to how frayed she felt at the moment, the simple gentleness behind the action alone brought unwanted tears to Sakura’s eyes. It was not something she was used to receiving, after all.

The woman smiled warmly. ‘You’re in my house. Don’t worry, you’re safe, for now.’

Sakura darted her eyes around the unassuming room, unwilling to let her guard down in front of a stranger. She noticed that the top of her uniform had been changed for a clean warmer garment and she felt the bandages around her wound tighter than before, which indicated the woman had tended to her injury. She turned her eyes back to the other woman, feeling twitchy. ‘Why are you helping me?’

The woman didn’t seem bothered by her abruptness and just smiled. ‘Because you need my help.’

Sakura narrowed her eyes, sceptical. Nothing in her life had ever been that simple and easy. ‘How did I end up here?’

‘I found you unconscious and brought you here,’ she explained, opening a tight-lipped smile at Sakura’s suspicious nature. ‘I’m stronger than I look.’ She chuckled. ‘There’s no reason to fear, child. Now, what’s your name?’

'Kinomoto Tou–’ She shook her head. She would need to get used to the fact that Touya was dead now. ‘... Sakura. I’m Kinomoto Sakura.'

The woman seemed unfazed about the slight stumble of the tongue, answering without batting an eye. 'And I’m Mizuki Kaho.'

Mizuki’s candid acceptance of Sakura’s answer and the fact that she wasn’t making any questions did nothing to assuage her fears.

Mizuki stood with an effortless kind of elegance – worthy of envy, really – as she looked down to Sakura still prone on the bed. ‘Please, relax and rest a bit more. I’ll bring you a warm broth in a bit. You’ve lost a lot of blood and need to recover your strength.’

Weakened as she was, there was nothing Sakura could do, other than hesitantly agree.

When the woman returned a little while after, carrying a bowl of hearty thickened soup, Sakura had dozed off again. Waking up a second time to the delicious scent of a chicken and sesame oil broth made a grateful smile brighten up her face. She hadn’t realized how hungry she was until she took the first spoonful to her mouth. She didn’t hesitate to accept seconds.

Though a very pleasant company, Mizuki was a rather mysterious woman. Sakura prided herself on being a good judge of character, but no matter how long Sakura watched her host, she couldn’t see past her gentle smiles. The woman was discreet, at least. Never inquiring why Sakura was wearing a military garb or how she got hurt. It actually seemed at times that she already knew the answer to those questions, which was equally improbable as it was concerning.

After eating, Sakura fell fast asleep once more. She had been asleep for only a couple hours when Mizuki gently shook her shoulder, waking her up.

‘The one who’s chasing you is nearby,’ she said and Sakura could hear the urgency in her voice. ‘You must leave. Now.’

Sakura swallowed hard, slowly getting up from the bed, feeling her injury sting with every movement. ‘The General is here?’ The fear that the General would find her there got her wide awake, despite her weakness; but when she stood up, she felt some dizziness and her mind got clouded.

Mizuki didn’t answer. Instead, she opened a drawer and pulled a thick leather coat and a dark cloak, giving it to Sakura. ‘Cover yourself. It’s cold outside.’

Sakura nodded and dressed herself as fast as she was able.

The woman waited for her at the bedroom door, holding out a bundle of food for Sakura to take for the journey. As soon as Sakura was finished getting dressed, Mizuki beckoned her toward the backyard door, where Yin was tied down, well-rested and fed.

Sakura mounted her horse and took the food Mizuki was offering her, feeling a deep gratitude for the mysterious woman. ‘I don’t know how I’ll ever repay you.’

Mizuki held Sakura’s hands and stared deep down into her eyes. ‘You’ll face many more obstacles from now on, Sakura. You’ll have to overcome them by being yourself, though.’

Sakura widened her eyes, unable to look away from the woman’s wise gaze. A gentle smile spread over the older woman’s face. ‘Don’t worry so much. Everything will be alright.’

‘Th-thank you,’ Sakura stuttered, swallowing the lump in her throat.

‘Now go!’ She commanded, squeezing Sakura’s hands before letting go. ‘Ride away and don’t look back!’

Sakura spurred her horse and disappeared into the forest, with only the last strip of the waning moon to guide her

Mizuki took a deep breath as she watched the girl ride away until she no longer could hear the sound of hooves. She, then, turned around re-entering her house in time to hear the first knocks on the front door.

Knowing fully well who it was, she took her time, leisurely sauntering to the door. She would do what little she could to delay him in his pursuit. The knocking on the door turned to pounding as the man on the other side grew impatient.

When she opened the door, she took a good look at the man, noticing the swollen black-eye he sported and his unshaven face. ‘Good evening, Officer,’ she said, keeping her voice even. ‘How can I help you?’

‘I’m looking for a green-eyed girl with auburn hair. Have you seen her?’ He inquired not even bothering to acknowledge her.

She smiled at him, patiently. ‘No, Sir, I haven’t seen anyone with that description.’

The man watched her with a raised eyebrow, distrustfully. ‘Don’t lie to me, woman.’

‘I’m not lying, Sir. If you don’t believe me, why don’t you look around my humble house?’ She stepped away, giving him passage.

‘As if I needed your permission,’ he sneered, crossing the threshold.

Mizuki followed him inside. ‘If I may ask, what might a girl have done that warrants a high echelon Officer to personally look for her?’

‘That’s none of your business,’ he bristled at her inquiry.

She just nodded, graciously accepting his answer as he inspected every crevice of the small house like a wolf with blood rage.

‘Dammit!’ he cursed, pacing up and down in exasperation as he ran his fingers through his hair.

‘You must be hungry and tired, Sir,’ she spoke again, serving him with a bowl of soup and a cup of tea. ‘And I see that you’ve got hurt, as well. May I treat your wound?’

The General watched the woman e mumbled something unintelligible, but sat at the table anyway, accepting the offered meal.

‘Is this the only house in the region?’ he asked in between spoonfuls.

‘Yes, Sir. No one else dares to live in such isolation,’ she said in a simple manner.

Xiao Lang stopped eating, the spoon halfway to his mouth. ‘You’re a witch, aren’t you?

She smiled benignly. ‘That’s such an offensive label, Sir.’

He gave her a wry smile. ‘If you’re really a witch, then tell me how to find the girl I’m looking for.’

‘And why are you looking for her? Is she a runaway bride?’ She raised an eyebrow, with a knowing look.

‘I’m the one making the questions here, not you,’ he harrumphed, his face growing serious.

‘Unfortunately, I can’t help you, Sir. The girl you seek isn’t close by anymore,’ she raised her shoulder slightly and briefly. ‘Do not fret, though, you’ll find her again someday. Fate has it that thrice your paths would cross.’

‘I don’t need powers to be sure that I’ll find her again,’ he remarked, pursing his lips; his voice tone acerbic.

Once he went back to taking the soup, she graciously sat herself in an armchair. ‘Have you ever heard the tale of the man and the glass, Sir?’

The man looked at her with a raised eyebrow. ‘I don’t have time for these foolishnesses…’

‘Allow me, anyway. While you finish your meal,’ she insisted as he rolled his eyes. ‘One distant day, a man was walking down a path when a shiny object drew his attention,’ she started, watching him turn his attention back to the hot broth. ‘He took just one look at it and decided “It must be a shard of glass.” Then he resumed his way and never thought of it again. Sometime later, another man walked through that same place and noticed the glint, he approached it, took it in his hands and saw that, underneath all the mud, there seemed to lay a huge diamond.’

‘These stories mean nothing to me, woman,’ he mumbled and sighed exasperated.

She continued as if he hadn’t interrupted her. ‘It really seemed to be a diamond, reflecting the light in rainbow colours when put against the sun. The man then thought: “Could it really be a diamond? Maybe I should take it to a lapidary.” However the more he looked at the stone, the less certain he seemed to be, until he finally dropped it back on the ground, saying to himself: “How stupid of me! Imagine if I, of all people, would find a diamond out here. It ought to be just a shard of glass, an imitation . If I had taken it to a jeweller, I would be laughed at.” And so he proceeded his way, complaining about his poor luck and his misfortunes.’

Trying hard not to smile, Mizuki noticed that the man no longer complained and, though he refused to look at her, he was now paying attention to the tale. He even had stopped eating.

‘The following day, another man walking through that path, saw the same stone and was lured by its lustre. “What a beautiful stone!” He thought. “It looks like a precious gem and may even be a diamond. Or it may be a shard of glass. The only way for me to know it is by taking it to a lapidary.” And so he stashed the stone in his satchel and went along his way.’ She paused, briefly, staring at the General.

Xiao Lang raised his head, furrowing his brow; a gleam of curiosity in his eyes. ‘So? What was it?’

The woman grinned, like the cat who ate the canary. ‘When he took it to the jeweller, he found out that it was, indeed, a diamond. And a big one, with several karats. And with that gem, he built his fortune and fortified his lineage for many generations.’

He tilted his head, frowning deeply as if trying to solve a puzzle before shaking his head. ‘Charming story,’ he snorted, waving his hand dismissively as he finished his meal. As soon as he was done, he stood up, ready to leave. ‘As what I seek really isn’t here, I’ll proceed with my search.’

‘Have you understood the tale, Sir?’ she asked as she stood up from her seat, a stern look transforming her beautiful face.

‘Oh, yes. I understood that some people are smarter than others,’ he smirked, sarcastically.

She was unamused at his antics. ‘No, Sir. This tale is about failing to recognize the value of that which lies in front of our eyes.’

‘I’ve never found a diamond, madam. But rest assured, that when I do, I’ll know not to throw it away,’ he said, his upper lip curled in disdain.

‘It’s more than a cautionary tale, General,’ she admonished him. ‘For, twice now, you’ve had a pair of precious gems at your reach, yet you failed to acknowledge its true worth,’ she said, seeing him stop on his tracks at the door.

Xiao Lang turned to look at her –– a creased brow and eyes narrowed in suspicion. ‘What craziness are you talking about now?’

‘Diamonds are valuable, but there’s not enough gold in the world worth a pair of Jade stones, sir,’ she replied cryptically. ‘I hope that, when you find those precious gems again, you might give her the merit she’s due.’

With those parting words, Mizuki walked past the General and opened the door for him to depart.

The man muttered a couple curses, crossing the threshold and mounting on his horse. Without even looking back at the mysterious lady, he spurred his horse to continue his search for Kinomoto. He would find her if he had to look for her in Hell itself.

Mizuki watched as the shadow of the rider disappeared into the darkness, her visage marked by a melancholic wave of sadness.

‘And once again, the Dragon in his fiery nature chases his Phoenix away.’

To be continued.

Chapter Text

 

 

‘Where’s Daidouji?’ Xiao Lang stormed into the brothel, startling many of the girls who were currently resting in the main hall. It caused an uproar as some of the girls scattered around in fear. ‘I’m here, General,’ Tomoyo answered from the top of the stairs, her lips pressed together in irritation at the disturbance. Her annoyance was soon replaced by worry as her eyes took in the man standing at the centre of the salon, looking for something or someone.

‘Where’s Captain Kinomoto?’ She inquired, her voice failing almost imperceptibly at the end.

His upper lip curled up and he scoffed, his eyes zeroed in on the concubine. ‘You seem to really like the Captain, huh,’ he sneered as he stalked up the stairs.

Tomoyo went ramrod at his approach, resisting the urge to take a step back. ‘He’s an admirable man, Sir.’

Muttering something unintelligible, the General seized her by the arm and hauled her down the corridor back to her chambers.

‘Are… are you mad, General?’ She inquired, trying to get rid of his grip.

He only tightened the hold, pulling her with him. As soon as they reached her room, he shoved her inside and slammed the door, blocking the way out with a ferocious stance as he scrutinized her carefully.

When he failed to say anything, she took a step ahead, back straightened and hands clenched at her side. ‘We’re not open this early in the day, General.’

He then took a step ahead and practically growled his next words. ‘Where is Kinomoto?’

‘But... That’s exactly what I asked you,’ Tomoyo narrowed her eyes, confused.

‘The two of you have made a fool out of me for long enough,’ He took a wider stance and squinted his eyes at her. ‘So I suggest you tell me where she is, right now!’

Tomoyo gasped and widened her eyes at hearing him call the Captain she . ‘Y-you… You know then.’

‘Yes, I do,’ he said through clenched jaws and with throbbing veins in his neck.

‘What are you planning to do to her, Sir?’ Tomoyo’s fair complexion turned ashen. ‘She’s just a girl… She’s already suffered too much!’

‘Not yet, she hasn’t,’ he sneered, his expression contorting into a snarl of barely-contained rage. ‘But she will when I’m done with her.’

Tomoyo clung to the General’s arm in despair. ‘Please, be merciful! What did you expect her to do, Sir? What could a poor orphan girl do?’

‘Get away from me, woman!’ he snapped, giving her a hefty push and causing her to fall down.

‘Look at me, Sir! Look at what I became. What I was forced into,’ Tomoyo looked up from her position, wide teary eyes and shallow breaths. ‘I’m a concubine; I lay down with whoever pays me. I have no dignity and no honour…’ she lamented, getting back to her feet on unsteady legs. ‘But that girl… That girl fought to keep her honour. She fought hard to be respected and she did…’

‘She’s a treacherous snake!’ He roared over her, trying to make her stop talking.

‘She’s a warrior!’ Tomoyo cried out, refusing to let him bury his head in the sand. ‘And she was your best student. She was your best friend and your companion. Don’t deny that…’

‘Don’t be absurd,’ he grunted and looked away, aiming for detachment but failing to deliver.

‘It’s the truth and you know it!’ Tomoyo exclaimed forcefully, getting close to him.

The General brought up his hand to slap the woman in front of him and saw her shrink back with hunched shoulders. His mind suddenly replaced the concubine with the image of Kinomoto the week before. He recalled how she stood up tall and proud, refusing to cower in face of his incoming aggression. It was such a stark contrast to how Daidouji recoiled from him. He took a deep breath and tried to relax, pacing out his irritation on the room.

Tomoyo heaved a sigh, watching the man pacing up and down her room. She feared for her friend’s life and felt like she had to make something to protect her, though she knew not what.

‘Maybe…’ the General began hesitantly, looking out the window. ‘Maybe Touya might’ve been a good soldier but…’

‘Being a woman doesn’t erase everything she’s accomplished,’ Tomoyo remarked affectionately.

Xiao Lang turned silent again, thoughtful. He crossed his arms and leaned on the wall, staring her sternly. ‘What did you do at night when I brought her with me?’

Tomoyo sat on her bed and sighed, relieved that he’d calmed down a bit. ‘We talked about our lives. I taught her other languages and she would tell me whatever it was that she had learnt recently,’ she explained with a weak smile. ‘She always talked a lot about you, Sir.’

He rolled his eyes and groaned, dismissively.

‘She really admired you, General…’ Tomoyo insisted.

‘She lied and fooled me,’ he grunted feeling the irritation creep back up, shooting a glare her way. ‘You both did.’

‘If she’d told you the truth, Sir, you would never give her the time of your day. Would never listen to what she had to say or value what she did,’ Tomoyo replied.

He took a deep breath, pinching his nose; he couldn’t deny that she was right. Had he known Kinomoto was a woman, no matter how intelligent her strategy might be, he’d never listen to it.

As Tomoyo watched the man in front of her, she noticed a softer look on his face. She could almost see the hint of a smile on his lips. She felt her cheeks warm a little when he looked up straight at her and caught her staring.

‘Tell me everything you know about her, Daidouji…’ he demanded, watching her attentively.

Tomoyo hesitated, considering her options and the consequences of what she was about to do. She knew the General had a soft spot for his pupil and she still remembered the mesmerized look he wore the day he’d mentioned the green-eyed girl from Shanghai. Not to mention the desperate crusade he’d launched trying to find said girl. She wondered if he’d put two and two together, yet. Nonetheless, if Sakura had any chance of happiness, of completion, he needed to know the truth; so she told him.

She told him about the childhood spent in an orphanage and the grievances Sakura had endured for being not only a bastard but the child of a Japanese officer. She told him about the girl who’d been sold to a brothel after being deemed ineligible for marriage. She told him about the humiliation of having her virtue auctioned amongst drunkards. She told him how Sakura was ignored when she tried to explain her condition and how she ran away after knocking out the soldier that had bought her virginity.

The concubine noticed how Xiao Lang furrowed his brow, looking away when she mentioned Shanghai and the brothel. Even if Sakura hadn’t mentioned the General’s regret over those events, she would still be able to see it through his reaction. As she’d told Sakura once, he was a refreshingly transparent person.

‘... And I don’t think I need to give you the details about her life from the moment she joined the army, do I?’ she concluded, watching him with caution. Tomoyo hoped that her gamble would pay off and help her friend in the long run, because otherwise, she might’ve just made Sakura’s life a lot more difficult.

A fraught silence descended over the room when Tomoyo stopped talking as the General stared ruminatively at his reflexion in her dressing table mirror as though it held the answer to all of his problems. When the thoughtful look on his face transformed into steely determination, the concubine felt her heart start pounding in her chest.

‘What… What are you going to do, General?’ she stuttered, holding her breath.

Instead of answering, Xiao Lang turned away from her and walked purposefully toward the door, stopping short of leaving the room. ‘If you ever see her again, tell her there’s nowhere she’ll be able to escape. Tell her I’ll be coming for her,’ he warned over his shoulder before stepping out and slamming the door.

‘What have I done?’ Tomoyo sobbed, bringing both her hands to her heart, feeling it constrict in her chest. She didn’t know where her friend was; she had no idea of how Sakura was fairing and at the same time the concubine wished to know she was safe, she also hoped that her friend never came back to The Forbidden City. ‘May the gods help my dear friend and protect her from that General’s cold-heartedness.’


 

Sakura watched the house where she lived for the first sixteen years of her life from afar with a sense of detachment. A small group of young girls – probably about five years old – played in the yard without much fuss, certainly knowing that punishment would follow if they disturbed the lady of the house. The older girls were moving around performing the household chores.

She blinked and had suddenly lost track of the time she spent watching the house movement through her burning haze. She was currently fighting a fever that made it hard for her to focus. Furrowing her brow, she looked at the sky. “Is it getting dark already?” She could swear it had been dawn when she sat under that tree across from the house. She never knew time became blurred when you spent your days fighting a fever that went down and came back up again as it pleased. She couldn’t remember much of the last days. How much time had passed since the fight against the Huns? How long since she had last eaten something? She wasn’t even sure if the kind woman who helped her up – what was her name again? – had actually existed or if it had been the fruit of her imagination.

She also wasn’t sure of how she managed to get back to Yuhan of all places but back she was and if there was one thing she knew for sure was that Mr Yang would help her if she asked. She knew he’d help but she still hated the need to ask. If she could shake her fever long enough to be clear minded and take care of herself, she would be fine on her own. She’d be able to hunt or fish something to eat and the food would help her body heal and fight the inflammation that she was sure was causing that damned abhorrent feebleness. Right now, though, she felt like there was a hole in her stomach and she was starving on the brink of passing out.

That was the last place she wanted to be and the only place where she could think of going at the moment. Taking a deep breath, she slowly approached the house, trying not to scare the children, to no avail. As soon as the girls noticed her, they immediately stormed into the house crying out frightened. She was sure her appearance was deplorable, and she must’ve looked like an indigent. No, not “look like”… She was actually an indigent now, wasn’t she? What a joke! The proud Captain Kinomoto, renowned War Hero reduced to a pauper homeless.

‘Please, don’t be scared,’ her voice cracked, and she put her arms out with her palms forward in an attempt to look as non-threatening as her ragged appearance would allow.

Hearing the commotion, one of the older girls came out of the house holding a broom and, at seeing Sakura, stepped in front of the children to defend them. ‘What do you want here, bum?’ She seethed with curled lips in disgust.

Sakura widened her eyes in recognition of the pretty dark-haired girl with ebony-like eyes. 'Cixi?' She beamed with a broken voice and tears in her eyes. She hadn’t thought her oldest friend would still be at the orphanage.

At hearing her name, Cixi tensed her shoulders and blinked once, then twice really looking at Sakura now. Dropping the broom on the floor, she gasped and placed her hands over her mouth. ‘S-Sakura?’ She shook her head as if she couldn’t believe who was in front of her.

Sakura just nodded, feeling her mouth dry and her throat constrict, the movement making her slightly dizzy and she almost missed the way Cixi bounced before throwing herself into her arms.

‘By Buddha, Sakura!’ Cixi hugged her effusively as tears started forming in her eyes. ‘I’m so glad! I’m so glad to see you!’

Sakura flinched, her whole body aching at being squeezed, and her hands gripped onto Cixi’s shoulders for balance as she suddenly found her knees too weak to support her own weight. Her pained hiss startled Cixi who took a step back to regard her more closely.

‘What happened to you? Where’s your husband?’ Cixi questioned concerned. ‘And… oh, your hair! It was such a beautiful hair! Why did you cut it?’ Her voice broke into a whine as she ran her hand over Sakura’s hair, pulling at the tips of the shoulder-lengthed grimy tresses.

‘I… I-I need help, Cixi,’ Sakura muttered, ashamed. It was so hard to ask for help after everything. She had become so used to accomplish things for herself.

‘Of course! Come, come,’ she embraced Sakura by her waist and started moving toward the house. ‘But tell me what happened to you…’

‘I’m so… I’m so hungry, Cixi…’ Sakura groaned, leaning heavily against her friend and stumbled almost causing them both to fall.

Cixi squeaked lightly and held tightly to Sakura’s waist, practically carrying her inside when they heard a high-pitched shriek that made them stop.

‘CIXI! What are you doing touching this… this indigent?’ Both girls raised their eyes, seeing the plump red-face of Mrs Yang scowling at them.

Cixi flinched slightly at being reprimanded but didn’t let go of her friend. ‘It’s Sakura, Mrs Yang. She’s hungry and I think she has a fever, too.’

‘Sakura?’ Mrs Yang snarled, narrowing her eyes at them and looking at the stranger in Cixi’s arms. She then darted with a surprising speed toward the girls and furiously yanked Cixi away from Sakura. ‘What are you doing here, impure?’

‘She’s hungry, Mrs Yang,’ Cixi repeated, trying to bypass the older woman to reach Sakura again but was held tightly by the forearm. By then, all other girls from the house had assembled on the porch and windows to watch the commotion.

‘She can starve for all I care!’ Mrs Yang thundered unsympathetically. ‘Just look at you!’ She sneered, giving Sakura a cold stare. ‘You’re really worthless! Not even as a whore you were of use.’

Contrary to what the old woman expected, the jab at her honour made Sakura jerk back at attention, straightening her back with her shoulders and standing suddenly taller with an unblinking focus. Sakura refused to let that woman humiliate her again.

‘I. Am. Not. A whore,’ she bristled, taken by an overwhelming fury that brought her mind to a state of swift focus.

‘How come? Mr Quang paid me good coin for you. You’re his property now,’ The woman pointed out with a dismissive hand-wave. ‘If even he tossed you out, that’s your problem.’

‘I ran from that hole where you left me before they could turn me into a concubine as you certainly hoped,’ she growled, stepping ahead and coming face to face with the chubby woman. Even though Sakura was shorter than Mrs Yang, she managed to tower over her somehow. Sakura squinted her eyes and bared her teeth looking almost feral. ‘And later I tracked Quang Dan down and slit his throat like he deserved.’

Mrs Yang widened her eyes, terrified of the coldness in Sakura’s voice and eyes. She jerked away from her, shoving her by the shoulder. The sudden fortitude that rushed through Sakura’s veins was actually illusory in its nature and the brief impact caused her to wobble, almost falling to the ground. The only thing keeping Sakura standing was pure unadulterated stubbornness.

‘Go away! Don’t you dare sully this house and the pure and dignified girls that live here!’ The woman tried to impose command but failed due to the quaking in her voice.

Sakura then looked around for the first time, seeing the disgusted spurning glares and scared looks in the girls’ faces. ‘I want to talk to Mr Yang,’ she demanded, turning once more to the red-faced woman. She knew that the kind-hearted old man would at least offer her something to eat, even if he also sent her away.

‘My husband is dead, you petty thing,’ Mrs Yang uttered an exasperated snort. ‘Now get out of here!’

Shock, silence, dismay and a plethora of other emotions took over Sakura as she felt her eyes sting with unshed tears and her face contorted. She couldn’t believe that the only man to ever treat her with kindness was dead. She almost called Mrs Yang a liar and challenged the woman to prove that what she said was true but the saddened look on Cixi's face deterred her. Hunching her shoulders, she turned around and headed back to the house entrance, as there was obviously nothing else for her in that place.

‘Sakura, wait!’ She heard Cixi call for her and stopped, clenching her fists. Taking a shaking breath, Sakura kept walking without looking back. It would be better for Cixi not to be even more implicated.

‘Stay put, Cixi!’ Mrs Yang harshly chastised her charge before yelling at Sakura’s retreating back. ‘And you, you filthy creature, don’t you dare coming back here!’

She was a pathetically forlorn figure, dragging her feet while sensing the upbraiding snubbing stares following her every move.

When she reached the gate, Sakura was startled by a black stallion that came to a halt short of trampling over her. She stiffened noticeably, the sight of the familiar hulking mount made her blood run cold in her veins even before she raised her glance to see the face of the rider.

He pursed his lips in a self-satisfied smirk. ‘You should know that you can’t escape me, girl.’

‘Gods, no!’ She swallowed a lump in her throat, feeling her heart pounding in her chest and, without a second thought, she turned away running back toward the house.

She completely ignored the startled gasps and Mrs Yang’s raging squawk complaining that she had lost her mind. Only one thing mattered at that moment and that was the dire need of fleeing from the General’s grasp. If going through the house was her only option, then that was exactly what she would do. In her despair, she lost her footing for a moment and hit the ground hard, scraping her hands and twisting her ankle. She quickly recovered, limping away for a couple more steps before Xiao Lang finally captured her.

As an instinct reaction, she thrashed against him, hard enough to make him stumble trying to keep his balance and forcing him to pin her to the ground.

‘Be quiet, girl!’ he grumbled, seizing her wrists to prevent her from lashing out again.

‘Let her go!’ Cixi let out a wail, disentangling herself from Mrs Yang’s grip and running toward Sakura to try and help her.

The General took his eyes out of his mark and glared at the girl who stopped in her tracks at the threatening look. ‘Stay out of it,’ he snapped at her.

Cixi hesitated, clenching her fists at her side before stepping forward, defiantly. ‘Can’t you see that she’s sick?’

‘Let me deal with it, Cixi!’ Sakura groaned still trying to get rid of his hold.

‘Well, good luck with that,’ he smirked, flipping her onto her stomach to bind Sakura’s hands at her back, before pulling her to stand up by her clothes. He looked down with a dark glower at Cixi and turned to Mrs Yang who had grabbed the girl’s arm with her chubby fingers. ‘You would do well to teach these girls to hold their tongue in a man’s presence.’

Sakura couldn’t hold the derisive snort from leaving her mouth before hissing at being suddenly jolted by him.

‘I beg your pardon, Sir,’ Yang bowed her head and lowered her eyes, pinching Cixi and ordering her to do the same. ‘We’re just nervous about this whole commotion.’ She then sneered at Sakura with total contempt. It was such a hatred-filled glare that he was slightly taken aback. ‘I’m just glad that you were here to help us get rid of it before it infested our honourable house.’

‘Harpy…’ Sakura hissed at the woman, gritting her teeth.

Xiao Lang turned toward his former pupil with a furrowed brow at the interaction, causing Sakura to raise her eyes, staring at him with an unblinking focus and he momentarily ignored their situation. ‘Is this woman your former matron?’

Mrs Yang looked up, startled at his question and noticed the way they were looking at each other. ‘I don’t know that woman, Sir!’ She claimed hurriedly before Sakura could implicate her house and tarnish their reputation. ‘I would appreciate it if you would take her away from my pure and chaste charges.’

Sakura sighed, slumping her shoulders as much as the General’s strong grip on her arm would allow. Xiao Lang looked away from Kinomoto, observing the scorn and the loathing in the eyes of not only the old lady in front of him but of all the other girls watching them. All of them, except the one who came to her aid.

“Can you imagine what it is to grow up hearing every single day about how worthless and useless you are? What it is to be shunned like a mangy dog as if your own existence was an offence to the people surrounding you?” He suddenly remembered Daidouji’s words while she was telling him about Kinomoto’s childhood. “How could you know? How could a man born of such a privileged and honourable lineage understand what she’s been through? She had to fight for every ounce of respect she’d earned, and she did earn it! You know she did!”

‘Let’s go, Kinomoto,’ he shook his head, scattering his thoughts and turned to leave, pulling her along with him toward the gate and his horse. Xiao Lang hoisted her to the saddle on her side, hopping on behind her in a way that kept her secured in between his arms.

Her last attempt to flee had consumed the last of her energy and she went limp in his arms, her back slumping against his chest when he spurred his horse.

‘Damn but you’re reeking terribly…’ he complained, wrinkling his nose.

‘Where you’re taking me, it makes no difference,’ Sakura replied with a slur in her voice. Xiao Lang regarded the girl in his arms as if seeing her for the first time and found it hard to believe that she’d successfully passed as a soldier for so long. And not just any ordinary soldier but a good one. No, an excellent soldier, actually. He wondered how she managed to do that with such a small and delicate frame.

‘How did you manage to make Tomoyo talk?’ she asked, heaving a tired sigh.

He stared at the top of her head with widened eyes, surprised that she’d already figured out how he was able to find her. He couldn’t deny that the little tricky rascal was smart. ‘I didn’t kill her if that’s what you’re worried about.’

‘I hope you didn’t hurt her, General,’ she said with just a trace of admonition in her voice. ‘She’s a very kind person and…’

‘Stop talking!’ he cut her off, sternly. ‘You’re done pretending. You’re a woman; start acting accordingly.’

Sakura complied, not because he had ordered, or because she didn’t have a suitably cutting retort but because she was too tired, too hungry and in too much pain to do anything else. Remaining conscious seemed like an uphill battle by and of itself.

Xiao Lang furrowed his brow and leaned forward watching her face over her shoulder at her uncharacteristic lack of an answer only to take notice of her glassy eyes and flushed face. With just a moment’s hesitation, he placed his hand on her forehead and his breath caught in his throat. ‘You are burning up! And how long has it been since you last ate something?’ he questioned, his brow knitting and a dithering disquiet taking a firm grip on his chest as she took a while to answer.

‘Five days… I think…’ she answered, her breath rasping in her throat.

The General spurred his horse, setting off a fast lope. They galloped for nearly ten minutes and stopped in front of an unassuming little inn just past the northern border of Yuhan. He dismounted and set Sakura down.

‘Why are we stopping?’ she inquired, standing on wobbly feet.

He didn’t answer. Instead, he just tied his horse to the hitching rail before turning to face her. ‘When was the last time you tended to your injury?’ he asked, feeling rather grouchy.

Sakura widened her eyes as he pulled her into the inn. They approached the innkeeper, attracting the patrons’ attention and the General threw a handful of coins onto the stand.

‘Give me a room,’ Xiao Lang ordered brusque and impatient. ‘And set up a hot bath, as well.’

The innkeeper frowned looking up from the coins and taking in his Officer’s attire, then he looked at Sakura, crossing his arms. ‘Who’s the kid?’

Xiao Lang pulled Sakura closer to him, standing between her and the innkeeper while staring the man down. ‘That’s no concern of yours,’ he growled, jutting his chin.

The innkeeper held out his hands, giving the General a key and directing him to a room upstairs, saying that the bath would be set up in just a bit. Xiao Lang dragged Sakura upstairs only releasing her when they reached the room.

Sakura briefly assessed the room before turning to face Xiao Lang who was locking the door. ‘W-Why did you bring me h-here?’ she stammered, wrapping her arms around herself, though she was uncertain if it was out of fear or to try controlling the fever induced shaking chills.

Glancing at her over his shoulder, he moved from the door toward the windows and started locking them too. ‘You’ll take a bath, clear all the grime and soot ingrained onto you and will cleanse your injury,’ he commanded, brooking no argument. He fastened the last window closed with a satisfied grunt. ‘You won’t be able to escape now. I’ll get you clean clothes and some food while you clean up…’

Sakura tilted her head and blinked in confusion looking at him as if he’d grown a second head. ‘W-what? Why are you-?’ She snapped her mouth shut and took a few steps backwards as he moved toward her.

He grabbed her arm, pulling her closer to him and gazing at her green orbs in silence for a couple seconds. ‘You need to learn not to stare back at a man, girl.’

‘I’ll be executed in front of the very men I helped save once we’re back to The Forbidden City, Sir,’ she looked at him with unblinking focus, putting her shoulders back and raising her chin. ‘Nothing will change my fate now. Why should I be the one to lower my gaze? I’m not ashamed of what I did.’

They kept staring at each other till a knock on the door drew their attention. Letting out a frustrated sigh, Xiao Lang went on to open the door and allowed the servants to enter the room carrying buckets of hot water to the adjacent washroom to prepare a bath, all the while hastening them to leave just as quickly as they came.

When they found themselves alone again, the General turned to Sakura holding the door half-opened. ‘I’ll be back in a few minutes, so I suggest that you do as I said instead of trying to run away.’ And without waiting for an answer, he exited the room, locking it up behind him.

For a couple minutes, Sakura just stared at the closed door, unable to understand what was going through the General’s head. What was he planning to do to her? Why would he insist so much that she takes a bath? Was it just to be taken before the Emperor? Shaking her head, she decided not to think about that now. It had been days since she last tended to her injury and she was certain that it was inflamed if her febrile state was any indication.

She staggered into the washroom, undressing as she went and leaving her mucky clothes carelessly fall to the floor. She wrinkled her nose at the realisation that she indeed was letting out an unpleasant smell. Stopping in front of the tub filled with the warm water, she felt her knees buckle some, making it necessary that she held on the edge of the bathtub to remain standing.

Leaning against the wall, she started undressing her abdomen. She grunted painfully when she pulled the extremity of the linen band that covered her injury. The cloth had stuck to the scabbing, it seemed, and a yellow pus started to ooze from the purplish wound as she unbound it. Her body stiffened in pain when she tried to twist her body to better access the injury. It didn’t look good; it didn’t look good at all. She went too long without caring for the cut and it had swelled up, not healing up properly.

Sakura took a deep breath, watching the tub in a daze. She looked down to her calloused hands, noticing how dirty they were. She really needed to clean up before treating the gash. She kept her underdress near the tub and dove into it, submerging to her chin on the warm water.

She slowly leaned against the walls of the tub and closed her eyes, letting her body relax and breathing in deeply as she fought to remain conscious and sharp minded.

Sakura, slowly and carefully, started to wash, taking special care with her cuts and bruises. She knew she was ailing and therefore found herself debilitated. She needed to heal, she needed to get better to have any chance to escape him again. The General was most certainly delirious if he thought she would just give up without a fight. She didn’t accomplish everything she did by submitting to the will of men. She had fought to come to this world, she would fight to remain on it.

She was startled out of her thoughts by the sound of the room door opening and felt herself freeze with wide eyes, her breath stuck in her lungs. She blinked repeatedly, shaking her head to disperse the drowsiness cloud that had set over her. “Had I just fallen asleep in the bathtub?” she wondered as she swore under her breath for letting her guard down like that. She should’ve been clean and out of the tub by the time the General came back.

‘I’ve brought you some clean clothes,’ she heard him say and sunk more under the water to better cover herself. ‘I don’t want to see you wearing breaches anymore,’ he pressed on as her eyes darted around her, locating her underdress on the floor, just barely out of her reach. To get to it, she would need to get part of her chest out of the water and out of the covering of the tub. ‘Are you listening to me?’ the general inquired when she didn’t answer. ‘Kinomoto?’

She heard the rustle of cloth being moved around and turned toward his voice, seeing he open the drapery that separated the bedchamber from the washroom. ‘Yes, I heard you, General!’ she replied quickly, watching him stop at the entrance from over the rim of the tub, a low hiss escaping her lips as she contorted her torso to be able to look at him. ‘Now, turn around until I get dressed,’ she said, her voice involuntarily commanding.

Xiao Lang frowned at her, obviously displeased by her attitude. ‘So you can hit me on the head again? I don’t think so,’ he crossed his arms over his chest, a bundle of dark-green cloth hanging from his hands.

She huffed, feeling insulted and raised her head, so fast it made her dizzy. ‘I’ve never attacked you from behind, General! I’m not a coward! And that would be dishonourable!’

The General furrowed his brow, noticing how her hand gripped tightly onto the brim of the tub, her knuckles turning white. He looked at the clothes he bought for her and placed them on a low stool near the door, before turning around. Maybe he should just leave her alone to redress herself, but she had paled too brusquely for comfort just a second ago. ‘When you’re done, we’ll take a look at that wound of yours,’ he stated to fill the silence as he waited for her to get moving. After a little while, he heard her splashing around to leave the bathtub.

Sakura stood up on the tub, taking her underdress to cover herself, all the while keeping her eyes trained on the General’s turned back to make sure he wouldn’t peak. She quickly stepped out of the bath but in her haste her foot slipped on the dripping floor, causing her to crash into the bathtub rim, barely missing her existing injury. She let out a mix of a wheezing and a whimpering out of pain.  

‘Are you alright?’ the General asked, turning to look at her and seeing her on her butt on the wet floor.

‘Turn away!’ Sakura shrieked at him in embarrassment as she tried to cover her body the best she could in her precarious position. She gritted her teeth, gripping onto the edge of the bathtub to pull herself up on unsteady legs, hating herself for looking weak like that in front of the General.

Xiao Lang huffed and rolled his eyes exasperated at her stubbornness. Shaking his head, he quickly scooped her up in his arms, making sure that her underdress remained in place.

Sakura squeaked feeling her face burn for a reason that had nothing to do with the fever she’d been fighting for the last few days. ‘Let me down, General!’

‘Don’t be stupid! You can hardly stand on your own as it is!’ Xiao Lang chastised her as he took her to the bed. He frowned watching as the embarrassed flush she sported just a moment before faded away and her face turned ashen instead. ‘Truly, woman, you’re not well! You need to eat something and rest,’ he remarked, sitting her on the bed.

The way he was talking to her made Sakura feel a slight pricking in her eyes and her vision blurred. It was almost as if he actually worried about her but she knew that couldn’t be real and she was most likely delirious due to her feeble condition. She closed her eyes, before he could see her on the verge of tears and took deep breaths to get a grip on her weakened emotional state.

‘Let me take a look at your wound so that you can dress up and then eat something,’ he said, his tone brooking no argument, not that she would just accept it.  

‘I don’t need your help,’ Sakura grumbled, opening her eyes to stare right through him.

‘What would you gain by being headstrong now?’ he asked, taking in the state of alarming debility she found herself in.

Sakura clenched her fists until her knuckles turned white, aware that she wouldn’t have enough strength to fight him on that, not on her current condition. ‘Fine,’ she said, turning her face away from him, avoiding looking at him as he prodded and cleansed and bandaged her.

She could hear him muttering about how bad the wound looked but couldn’t make out the exact words he was saying, especially when it took all of her to remain conscious as he applied the medicine. It just hurt too much. She didn’t even notice when he helped her put on the green hanfu he had bought for her before leaning her back against the pillows.

‘Kinomoto! Wake up!’ Sakura was startled out of her hazy mind by Xiao Lang’s stern voice and looked up to see him holding up a rice bowl practically to her face. ‘Eat this.’

Sakura ate as much as she could with unthinking, numb movements, not even tasting the food. As starving as she’d been, however, her stomach couldn’t take a great amount of food in one go and she left half the bowl untouched. Ensuing, the General pressed a flask of something terribly bitter against her lips, probably some medicine, and then offered her a cup of tea to wash the tart taste away.

Feeling strangely detached from her body, she just went through the motions as he helped her lie down, her mind sinking into oblivion. And maybe, who knows? Maybe in her dreams, she would be finally respected and loved, despite being a woman.

To be continued.

 

Chapter Text

Xiao Lang squirmed uncomfortably as he tried to accommodate himself the best way possible over an armchair with his feet up on a low stool. Giving up on his attempt and feeling a painful crick in his neck, he deeply breathed out watching as Kinomoto slept soundly on the bed.

He had known her fever was most likely caused by the injury going unattended and since he was no healer, he had no idea what he could do other than clean up and dress the wound. That’s how, after she spent a whole day in a frenzy, he ended up seeking out the help of one of the village matrons to treat her fever.

He almost regretted doing so when the old woman started making allusions at Kinomoto being “the Japanese bastard from the Yangs” . Clearly not thinking straight and infuriated at the woman’s nerve, he hissed at her, warning her to watch her tongue when talking about his “wife” . He honestly didn’t know what had possessed him to say such a thing but it had been enough to shut the woman up, at least. Thankfully he didn’t have to deal with the woman again for the remedy she recommended had taken effect, though slowly.

It had been a close call, but after almost three days with a high temperature, he was pleased to see that her injury was healing well and her fever had finally broken allowing her some semblance of slumber. It still wasn’t ideal, but it was better than no rest at all. And the nightmares seemed to have lessened some, too.

She stirred a bit on the bed and the General waited with bated breath to see if she would wake up. After just a moment more she turned on her uninjured side, curling into herself with a little whimper and went back to sleep.

Heaving a sigh, he looked away from her, staring out the night sky through the window. He’d learned more about the girl in the last three days watching over her as she slept than he did in over two years. According to her recurring nightmares, the girl was actually terrified of being found out and, yet, she remained in the army as a soldier. He really couldn’t understand her. She had spent the two previous years living as a man and for what?

Xiao Lang leaned his head back, unable to maintain his heavy lids open for long. It was still hard to believe that a woman had been capable of pulling through as a soldier. She had endured an arduous training that had toppled lesser men before her. And she had thrived on it. She had become a Captain at an earlier age than even him. He had so many plans for Touya’s future. He would’ve made sure Kinomoto became the greatest General of not only this Dynasty but of all times. Dammit!

At the same time he loathed that girl for making a fool out of him, he couldn’t deny that Touya… that she had been his best pupil and his best friend. He had thought of Kinomoto as a son at times –– the son he could only dream of siring once he doubted that any woman would be good enough to give it to him. And now, with the kid he learned to respect and admire being a woman, it was as if it had all been a lie. It was as if Kinomoto Touya had actually died and that thought was enough to put a sour taste in his mouth. To make things worse he truly missed talking to his pupil.

Kinomoto started thrashing around on the bed, making him open his eyes with a tired sigh. She started muttering something incomprehensible and he furrowed his brow, getting up and nearing the bed. He noticed the wet cloth he’d set over her head was lying by her neck on the pillow and took it, ploughing it on the water basin over the bedside table as he sat beside her. Softly, he brushed her hair away from her forehead, making her stir a bit before settling down again. He lightly placed his hand on her brow to check her fever and narrowed his eyes. She wasn’t burning up anymore but he was concerned with how slowly she seemed to be improving.

Xiao Lang looked down at her, observing her closely. Her hair was shorter than how most women used it, though it was longer than how it used to be when she joined the army. Her delicate face still held a childlike aspect, which explained how she could pass for a young boy, yet not a man.

The more he looked at her, though, the harder it was to believe he had ever thought her to be a boy at all. How had he been so blind? How many times had he looked Touya in the eyes and grudgingly thought of the girl from Shanghai? How many times had he dismissed the fleeting thought believing he was losing his mind?

He heard her stir in her sleep again. ‘No, Ban,’ she whimpered with a deep frown on her face. ‘Please, hold on, Ban. Please, don’t die. Please...’

He furrowed his brow at hearing that; a sour taste in his mouth at the rogue thought that started spreading on his mind at hearing her call another man’s name. Had Yu Ban known Kinomoto to be a woman? The two of them had been extremely close during those first months of training. He knew that Ban’s death had been extremely hard on his pupil; could it really be just because they were friends? How many times had he seen them training well past the curfew hours? Was training all they did together? Could they’ve been lovers?

‘We’ll… we’ll show them, Ban,’ she went on, her voice was wobbly and her lips were shaking. ‘The Major and… the others. We’ll show them.’

Xiao Lang saw her turn to the other side and whimper in pain again as she curled in, making herself as small as possible. She was agitated, her dream was clearly unpleasant and she was probably putting pressure on her injury.  ‘You’re more trouble than you’re worth, you know that?’ he muttered, wondering not for the first time why was he doing that.

Taking a deep breath, he turned her around so that she was laying on her back with her legs stretched and took the damp cloth from the basin, squeezing the excess water before placing it back on her forehead. She shuddered for a moment, at the cold wet feeling before starting to calm down.

‘We’ll make him proud, Ban,’ she murmured under her breath and if Xiao Lang weren’t so close to her, he wouldn’t have heard. ‘The General… he’ll be proud of us, he’ll be...’ she kept on grumbling unintelligibly.

He couldn’t help the smile flickering on his face at hearing that. She had managed to make him proud, indeed; of her and of the whole troop they trained together. He’d been so certain the task of turning what everyone thought to be a bunch of useless men into soldiers had been a punishment of some sort. And yet, now, he saw that as one of his greatest accomplishments.

That was one of the reasons he felt so conflicted on how to proceed with her. By law, he should take her back to The Forbidden City to face judgement for her crimes. Could he do it, though? For the first time in his life, he honestly was at a loss on what to do.


 

Sakura's eyes slowly fluttered open, the balmy sun pleasantly rousing her out of a deep sleep. The softness of the bed and the absence of the acute pain that’d become her constant companion lately slowly enveloped her mind making her doze off again. When she was brought to again, yawning and stretching languidly, she let out a hiss at the sudden throbbing pain she felt at her side.

‘You need more time of rest to heal properly,’ she was startled by the General’s voice and opened her eyes, turning her head in his direction while attempting to sit up. She found him sagging uncomfortably on the armchair at the corner of the room with his feet resting over a stool.

Sakura flinched, trying to sit up squarely and busied her hands with straightening her clothes while staring forward to avoid looking at him. ‘I, I suppose you’re right.’

‘You’ve been out for almost a week barely staying awake long enough to sip some broth,’ she heard the sound of fabric shifting and a muffled thud she supposed to be his feet stomping on the floor as he stood up. ‘It would do you good to try and eat something now.’

She didn’t answer him. She knew that it would do her no good to avoid him, he wouldn’t just disappear from the room and her life just because she wished it, but the headstrong part of her still refused to glance his way as she felt vulnerable. Why couldn’t he be just part of another nightmare?

She saw him stop beside the bed with the corner of her eyes as he extended his hand toward her. ‘Come. I’ll help you to the table.’

‘I don’t need your help,’ she muttered through gritted teeth, stubbornly swatting at his outstretched hand.

‘Yes, you do,’ he heaved a weary sigh and she looked up in time to see him roll his eyes. ‘You’re still recovering.’

Sakura stared at him coldly, keeping an unblinking eye contact and clenching her hands beside her on the bed. ‘Let me rephrase it, then: I don’t want your help.’

Xiao Lang shook his head and massaged his temples, his eyes narrowing in a way she knew to indicate that he was getting impatient. ‘Don’t be stupid, girl. What would you gain by holding on to your pride now?’

‘My pride is the only thing I have left,’ she countered, unwilling to give in to his reasoning, no matter how sound it was.

Xiao Lang narrowed his eyes, his lips sealed tight in displeasure at her saucy reply. Shaking his head, he thought that maybe he’d been too complacent with Captain Kinomoto, maybe he’d given the boy too much liberty and now the girl thought she could talk to him like that. Such audacity in a woman was unbecoming. ‘You better start acting like a woman, Kinomoto,’ he reproached her, his voice cautionary and assertive.

Yet, she refused to lower her head. ‘Women shouldn’t be so submissive to men.’

He grunted in frustration at her stubbornness. ‘Your crazy ideas are going to get you killed.’

‘You didn’t seem to mind my “crazy ideas” so much while you thought I was a man,’ she wittily pointed out with one raised eyebrow. ‘And if it means I get to keep my head held high, I’ll gladly face death. It wouldn’t be the first time.’

The General shook his head and heaved a sigh, running his hand through his hair and decided to change tactics. ‘Then behave like an officer and obey the order you were given.’

She only smirked. ‘And when has Captain Kinomoto ever done anything he didn’t want, Sir?’

‘Don’t test my patience, woman,’ he warned her, squinting his eyes. ‘You’re not a Captain anymore. Playtime is over.’

‘Do you really think it was game?’ She bristled through clenched teeth. ‘I was trying to survive, General!’

‘By joining the army? By going to battlefields and fighting in a war?’  He inquired in a clipped tone, clenching his hands at his sides. ‘How was any of that going to keep you alive? It’s insane!’

‘As insane as it might’ve been, it was a better option than just resigning myself to lay down with men for money,’ she disputed, glaring at him as if daring him to disagree.

Swallowing hard, Xiao Lang just stared her down in silence for a few heartbeats because what could he say about that? How was he supposed to answer to that veiled accusation? ‘Well, if you’re strong enough fight me over such inanity,’ he turned his back to her, waving his hand dismissively as he took a seat at the table. ‘Then I guess you must be able to stand up and walk on your own to get something to eat.’

Sakura watched him settle at the table and let out a long deep sigh of relief that he relented argument. She lowered her legs from the bed, her bare feet touching the cold floor and straightened her clothes, making sure her hanfu was properly closed.

When she tried to get up, her legs almost gave in to the weight of her own body and she suddenly realized that, after spending a week in a bedridden state, her body was weaker than she thought.

She tried to ignore the way the General kept a rapt eye locked on her. Dammit! She refused to give him reason to gloat… She grumbled unhappily, her fingers gripping tightly to the headboard as she set her feet steadily to the floor once more and stood on wobbly feet.

Xiao Lang followed her movements with his eyes, noticing how she leaned against the wall and furniture to keep standing. She was clearly still weakened but was too headstrong to admit to needing help; especially his help.

She straightened up, her chest out and shoulders back all the while staring him with clenched jaws and keeping her chin up as she crossed the short distance to the table. ‘As I said before, I don’t need your help, General,’ she stated slightly out of breath.

‘Oh, yeah! I can see that, sure…’ he replied with heavy irony.

Rather than answering him, she took a plain steamed bun from the table eating it slowly along with a cup of lukewarm matcha. Though the last days had left her ravenous, she knew that eating too fast would only serve to make her ill again. She needed her energy and strength back if she wanted to have any choice of escaping him.

‘After you eat something, we’ll take another look at that troublesome injury of yours,’ he stated, making her look at him with a creased brow.

‘I’m perfectly able to treat it myself,’ she declared, crossing one arm protectively over her waist and taking her drink with the other.

Xiao Lang rolled his eyes at her stubbornness. As much as she didn’t want to accept his help, he didn’t actually think she’d be able to take care of the injury by herself. And after all the trouble he had to get her fever to break, he didn’t really want to go through all that again. ‘Maybe you are, maybe you aren’t. Either way, I’ll be the one to judge it,’ he insisted, stretching his muscles and snapping his tense neck and shoulders after the night spent on the armchair.

She almost choked on her tea at his haughtiness. ‘No, Sir! I’m the one who gets to decide about my life and my body.’

Gazing into her eyes, he raised an eyebrow and opened an unnerving and enigmatic smile. ‘As a woman, you’re a criminal and a prisoner, therefore I get to decide about your life. As a soldier, I’m your General and commanding officer and I also get to decide about your life.’

Sakura narrowed her eyes, wondering if he was teasing her or if he was being serious. ‘Do you enjoy so much to have control over things like this?’

‘It doesn’t matter whether I enjoy it or not. You’re my responsibility now,’ he replied, holding back a smirk when she huffed and turned her head to look away from him.

She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing how much he affected her, so she took another steamed bun and started nipping at it and washing it down with the tea. While she took her time eating, the General stood up from the table and started moving around the bedroom, doing what she didn’t know, once she purposefully avoided looking in his direction.

She smiled slightly at the feeling of fullness in contrast to the hole she felt in her stomach previously. Taking a deep breath, she steeled herself and stood up, feeling a lot more steady on her feet and nodding satisfied. It didn’t matter what the General thought, her priority should be building her strength back up and strategize how to escape.

When she turned around, Sakura saw him leaning against an open window, watching the outside movement and couldn’t help but watch him in silence. As much as it pained her to admit it, Xiao Lang was a striking specimen. She knew she was ogling at him.

It was a waste that he was just like every other narrow-minded man she’d ever met. He had such a potential for greatness and yet allowed himself to be bound by societal rules and expectations. Sometimes she wished she could hate him, it’d be so much simpler if she could.

‘Did Ban know you are a woman?’ he asked her, rather unexpectedly, taking her back from her wandering to the present.

‘Ban?’ She raised an eyebrow and took a sideways glance at him, confused by the question.

‘Yes, Yu Ban,’ Xiao Lang repeated, a strange tightness in his voice as he turned away from the window facing her. ‘The two of you were as thick as thieves those first couple months. There were several nights when I’ve watched as you’ve practised alone after curfew. So, did he know you were a woman?’

‘He didn’t. I mean,’ she shook her head, clasping and wringing her hands together. ‘He found it out at the top of Mount Fuy before he…’ Sakura clenched her teeth, choking on her words as she felt the pinpricks of tears in her eyes. She blinked a couple times and took a deep breath, getting her emotions under control. ‘I-I couldn’t control my voice so he ended up learning the truth at his final moments.’

The General narrowed his eyes, watching her carefully. ‘You wouldn’t lie to me about this, would you?’

She merely took him in with a frown for a moment, before shaking her head and giving up trying to figure out what was going on inside his thick head. ‘What is this about, Sir?’

He shrugged, looking away from her and clenching his hands at his side. ‘I was just curious to know if you really had fooled everyone.’

Sakura kept watching him, tilting her head slightly and pressing her lips together in silent contemplation. What on Earth could have made the General think of Ban, of all people?

After a couple minutes of awkward silence between them, Xiao Lang glanced sideways at her and crossed his arms, leaning against the windowsill. ‘You really felt his death, didn’t you?’

‘Yes, I did,’ She didn’t see a reason to deny that. And didn’t they already have this conversation before? ‘Ban was someone I cherished very much.’

Somehow, her answer seemed to displease the General as he turned back to her with a sour expression. ‘Just what was he to you?’

‘I don’t understand what you’re asking me, General!’ She shrugged shaking her head with a furrowed brow. ‘Or even what it is to you.’

‘Just answer me, Kinomoto!’ he demanded, taking a heavy step in her direction while aggressively running his hand through his hair.

‘He… he was my friend,’ she bowed her head with slumped shoulders. ‘I’m… I can’t help feeling responsible for his death. If...’ she stuttered, her eyes darting around the room and avoiding the General. ‘If I hadn’t seen the Huns, he might’ve still been alive.’

‘If you hadn’t seen them, the Emperor might’ve died, instead,’ he countered, matter-of-factly.

Sakura raised her eyes, feeling a lump in her throat. She has told herself that many times and knew that the Son of Heaven’s life was more valuable than any other but it didn’t help her feel any less guilty. Ban was her friend and she had been the soldier in charge of the sabotage unit.

‘Maybe…’ Sakura replied in a mumble and heaved a sigh, stubbornly squaring her shoulders. ‘Not that it matters now, does it? Whether or not I saved the Emperor’s life is of no consequence now that I’m found to be a woman,’ her mouth twisted into something that was a mixture of a sneer and a smile. ‘Though I’d gladly die if only I get to see the look on those old geezers’ faces at learning that a woman devised the strategy which won a war they couldn’t,’ she grinned as Xiao Lang furrowed his brow, twisting his mouth into a scowl. ‘That I bested them at their own game and was the one who granted not only the Emperor’s safety but all of China’s.’

He narrowed his eyes at her. ‘It behoves you not to act in such a petulant way.’

‘You’re the one who brought up how I saved the Emperor,’ she replied, pursing her mouth in a smirk.

Xiao Lang sighed, seeming to have tired of their bickering. ‘Just tell me at once: did you or did you not dally around with Ban?’

She momentarily froze in her place, staring him with wide eyes and raised eyebrows, all the colour drained from her face as she took in what he’d just asked. Then, to her utter embarrassment, she felt herself flushing violently, her cheeks heating up as she stammered an outraged and hasty denial.

How did they move from an almost friendly banter to him accusing her of… of that ? Had he not understood the lengths to which she went to preserve her honour? How dare he question her virtue?

She forced herself not to think of the only instance where she allowed a man – that man – to touch her and looked back up to face him. She didn’t even notice that she had looked away.

The General’s amber eyes were watching her closely as if appraising her; appraising her reactions to his ridiculous question.

She refused to let him shame her in that way. Sakura narrowed her eyes at him, jutting out her chin and clenching her fists at her side. She noticed with a bit of satisfaction that he slightly shifted his stance as her own did the same; that he unconsciously braced himself for impact as she readied herself to charge – even if figuratively.

Before she could descend on him with righteous indignation, though, Xiao Lang sighed deeply, in what seemed like a mixture of frustration and tiredness. ‘When we were last in Shanghai,’ he brought it up, massaging his temple and applying pressure on his eyes. ‘Why didn’t you tell me who you were then?’

She looked at him with wide-eyed bewilderment for a moment as she took in his words. Her eyes stared at him, unseeing, as she contemplated his question and what could’ve happened if she had told him the truth. ‘How…’ she stammered, feeling her throat close up. ‘How do you suppose I should’ve done it? Should I just have come to you and say that I was the girl you were looking for? You would have killed me.’

He crossed his arms and, for a brief fleeting moment, so swift Sakura almost doubted having seeing it, Xiao Lang looked away as if unable to look her in the eyes; almost as if ashamed. ‘You must’ve had quite a lot of fun at seeing me seeking for someone I would never find, huh?’ He said with a glum expression on his face.

She furrowed her brow and sighed as if tired of iterating the same thing over and over again. ‘I’ve warned you that the girl was dead.’

Dead ?’ He stifled an unbelieving groan at her statement – along with a sharp pang in his chest that he thought better not to look closely at. ‘Then who’s it that I’m talking to here?’

‘Just the carcass of a foolish girl who let herself be dragged to her own demise while believing she was going to meet her future husband,’ she answered, throwing him a snarky remark, trying not to seem aggrieved at the memories.

‘You still should have been honest,’ he mentioned, shaking his head. ‘Or, at least, should’ve told me the truth earlier.’

‘I’ve told you the truth the moment we met… Or I tried to tell you that I wasn’t there by choice but you thought I was playing games and being theatric to arouse you, as I recall,’ she shook her head and rolled her eyes. ‘Everything I did was in order to survive. It’s why I ran from you that night. It’s why I joined the army. It’s why I risked my life to fight in a war.’

He squared his shoulders even if he looked away from her. He didn’t think there would come a day when he didn’t regret what he’d done. Dammit! What even was his life? How did that girl ended up becoming such a huge part of his life? It was no wonder that while in Shanghai he kept seeing the green-eyed girl in Kinomoto, though at the time, he thought it to be the fruit of guilty conscience and remorsefulness.

The General eyed her nonplussed and shook his head. ‘And just how come your survival managed to bring you back into my life?’

She clenched her fists at her sides, her knuckles white, as she trembled out of frustration. ‘You say it as if I had a choice,’ she muttered under her breath. ‘It seems like I can’t get rid of you, as much as I try it,’ she gave a long, weary sigh and slumped her shoulders, briefly closing her eyes. ‘You’re an intelligent man, General. Do you really think I have the power of designing all that’s happened just out of spite? Becoming a soldier, joining your troop…’ she opened her eyes, gazing at him intently. ‘ You were the one who decided to make me a Captain under your tutelage.’

‘You should’ve said “no” ,’ he replied, his tone just a tiny bit hesitant.

She laughed at that and shook her head. ‘And would you have accepted my denial, Sir?’

Instead of answering, Xiao Lang started pacing around the room while processing everything that had been said between them just now. After a couple minutes, he turned to face her and straightened up with a deep breath. ‘Here’s where we’re at, Kinomoto: no matter the reason, you’ve impersonated a soldier for over two years, deceived not only your Commanding Officer but also lied to your Emperor dishonouring the Chinese Army…’

Sakura huffed and rolled her eyes cutting in. ‘I won’t waste my breath anymore trying to make you understand that circumstances and, in a way, your actions have forced my hand. If you persist in being obtuse, so be it!’

‘I’m not the one being obtuse here. Maybe you’ve been leaning on deceit for too long but it’s due time for you to stop deluding yourself.’ He admonished her, aiming for a matter-of-factly tone and failing to deliver it as a pinch of sorrow leaked into his voice.

Sakura felt herself flinch at noticing the underlying anguish in his voice. She would rather he be angry and resent her, for she didn’t know what to do with the prospect of having hurt him.

He heaved a sigh before proceeding. ‘You’re a woman. Women always belong to a man be that their father, brother, fiancé, husband or even their pander.’

‘I. Belong. To No. Man.’ She bristled, squinting her eyes and baring her teeth.

‘You might not like it, Kinomoto, but that’s how things work and you know it,’ he explained, letting out an exasperated sigh. ‘If it makes you feel better, we could even think of the 300 coins I paid for you as a dowry instead of what it was…’

Sakura felt herself blushing and couldn’t maintain eye contact with him as she stammered: ‘Y-You’re not my fiancé.’

Xiao Lang watched as a tinge of red spread on her cheeks, a sign of her fluster, and tried not to smile at her reaction. ‘If that’s how you prefer it, then we’re back to you being my prisoner, which makes me responsible for you just the same,’ he said, sobering up and letting out a long sigh while rubbing his neck. ‘Whatever the case, your life belongs to me. At least for now.’

‘You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?’ She stared at him through narrowed eyes.

‘As I said before, it’s not a matter of enjoying it,’ he said, looking her straight in the eyes. ‘I’m simply being honest about where we stand.’

The frankness in his eyes and voice robbed her of the will to keep on fighting him and she gritted her teeth feeling her body move in slow-motion. Not knowing what else to do now, she turned her back to him and tottered around the room well aware of her still recovering body. Tentatively, she pressed around the injury at her side, still feeling a raw soreness in the area. Not for the first time, she chastised herself for the stupid distraction which resulted in that injury.

The General kept a close eye on her and leaned slightly forward at seeing her wince in pain. Though her minor cuts and bruises had gotten better, the worst of her injuries still was a long way from being completely healed. It had been a bad enough gash that, even when freshly inflicted, would’ve taken time to properly heal.

With everything that happened, it had just gotten worse over time. With a couple short steadfast steps, he reached the dresser where he kept the medicine and dressings. ‘You need to change the bandages and reapply the ointments,’ he remarked, making her stop in her rambling.

‘I can do it by myself,’ she stated adamantly.

‘I need to make sure it’s treated correctly,’ he insisted, weary from their previous discussion. ‘It’ll be a long enough travel and your fever returning would only be a setback.’

‘Travel? What travel?’ she inquired, looking at him again. ‘What exactly are your plans, General?’

Instead of answering, Xiao Lang continued to gather the supplies to attend to her wound. The truth was that he knew what he had to do, what was expected of him but there was a nagging feeling in the pit of his stomach at the mere thought of following through. That doubt was something he never experienced before while fulfilling his duty.

‘You’re taking me back to The Forbidden City,’ she noted and he felt himself gulping down a lump in his throat.

‘Your crimes… Had they been only against me, I’d deal with you myself, but…’ he furrowed his brow, pressing on against a sudden stammer. ‘As your trickery made a fool of the whole Army, it’s not up to me to decide on your punishment. Your judgement will come by the hands of the Son of Heavens, instead.’

‘So you’ll make me into an example of what’ll happen to any woman who fails to comply and yield to men’s will, won’t you?’ she pondered, her low voice dripping with resentment.

He remained in silence, his eyes secured on the items in his hands, the tight grip on the dressing stripes turning his knuckles white.

‘Decapitation, mutilation, flaying or, maybe, death by a Thousand Cuts,’ she pressed on; her voice strangely sombre despite the little waver in her words and the quiver in her lips. ‘Which of these punishments do you believe better suit my “crimes” , General?’

He then turned to face her, his jaw clenching and his eyes narrowed as he took her in. ‘It’s not for me to decide. I’m a General of the Chinese Army and I know my duty, Kinomoto.’

She swallowed hard, eyes taking a steely gaze as she slowly nodded her acquiescence. ‘And I’m a Captain.’

Xiao Lang scrutinized her for a moment before looking out the window. ‘Not anymore and that’s the problem,’ he said, feeling a little jaded and disoriented. ‘You’re no longer Captain Kinomoto. I don’t have the slightest idea of who you are.’

Sakura slumped her shoulders, regarding him with a lump in her throat. ‘I’m still the same person, General.’

‘No, you’re not,’ he replied as if it pained him to admit it. ‘Let’s take care of your wound. We need to get to the Emperor as soon as possible.’ He hesitated and then added as an afterthought. ‘In light of your achievements and the role you had in defeating the Huns, I’ll request for a private audience with him and he’ll decide your destiny. Just him.’

She nodded absentmindedly. She knew this to be the standard procedure for crimes committed by political prisoners and noblemen, though there was occasional precedence for the military. So the Lord of Ten Thousand Years would be her judge. She could only hope he would show her mercy and grant her a quick death.

Not that she’d just walk into the palace to meet her death without a plan of escape or without attempting to save herself. And to have a real chance of evading her final meeting with the Emperor, she needed to be completely healed.

Taking a deep breath, Sakura stepped closer to the General, watching him comb through bandages and varied salves and liniments. She creased her brow, surprised by the sheer number of material over the dresser and had no idea what each of them was for. The longer she remained upright, the greater the discomfort she felt and what had been a stinging numbness a couple minutes ago was becoming a sharp twinge of pain. Blinking a couple times and feeling a bit overwhelmed, she decided to swallow her pride and accept his help.

Looking away from him, she unlaced her hanfu with shaking hands, opening it to give him easier access to the wound while trying to keep her modesty as much as possible. Shaking her head, she heaved a sigh, acknowledging that he wouldn’t be able to treat her while she tried to cover herself.

Rationalizing it, she knew he had already seen her bare and it would not do to be headstrong about it now. She slowly undressed the top of her garment, covering her breasts with her arms for modesty’s sake and as much as she tried, there was no way to refrain from blushing as Xiao Lang drew nearer to her. It was maddening that she felt vulnerable and was unable of maintaining eye contact with him.

The General approached her, taking notice of her naked shoulders and the delicate arch of her collarbone as she tried in vain to cover herself. He felt warm inside, his heart pounding in his chest as he beheld her in unrestrained awe. Not for the first time he wondered how could he be so blind not to see what had been right in front of him. How could he have believed for even a minute that the stunning woman in front of him was a boy?

Carefully, he untied the band that was fastened around her waist, covering the wound and felt her shiver at the little brushes of his fingertips with her skin. Swallowing hard, he forced himself to look away from her shoulder and luscious neck to focus on the laceration.

‘It’s quite unsightly, still,’ he remarked, gently feeling around the inflammation area.

Sakura bent herself as much as she could, taking a look at the injury and, dejectedly, conceded to his assessment.

‘Had it not been taken care when it did, it would’ve turned into a serious infection,’ the General commented, cleaning the purulence with a clean linen stripe, making her wince as the pain flared up. He didn’t begrudge her predicament as he knew how much that hurt but she would have to bear with it. The cut needed to be cleaned up otherwise it would turn gangrenous.

‘It was a deep wound but it wasn’t that bad before,’ Sakura hissed, her body shuddering in pain as she felt tears stinging her eyes. ‘Had you not assailed me the way you did when you found out the truth, it would be healed by now.’

Xiao Lang paused his ministrations, lifting his gaze to look deep into her eyes. ‘As I recall, after recovering from the immediate blow of Ban’s death, you mercilessly obliterated every Hun you found on your way.’

Sakura furrowed her brow and tilted her head looking at him in confusion. ‘Well, yes! They’ve just killed my best friend and I was furious.’

He just nodded, concurring with her explanation and turned his attention back to the task at hand. ‘Then you know exactly how I felt when you said Touya didn’t exist.’

She stared at him with wide eyes at hearing his reasoning and bit onto her lower lip, holding back a pained whimper. ‘I-I’m so sorry, General.’

He briefly glanced up. ‘So am I.’

Sakura wrapped her arms tightly around her body in an attempt to better cover her breasts and closed her eyes tightly as he finished cleaning the wound. Partly to help her endure the pain, partly to avoid shedding the tears pooling beneath her eyelids. She inhaled sharply, biting down a whimper when he started plastering the wound with the ointments, liniments and salves he had lying around.

The General watched her bear with the pain with deep admiration. He knew personally the excruciating pain that was caused by the application of those medicines and he’d already seen grown men struggling and screaming during treatment.

He took notice of her shivering body and of the tightness in her facial muscles and felt the hint of a smile on his lips. Though he didn’t enjoy seeing her in pain, he had to admit that her toughness was rather admirable.

Taking a clean stripe of linen, he leaned over her and methodically swathed her waist. Unintentionally, Xiao Lang caught himself breathing her in as he was all but embracing her in order to dress her wound. He felt her body tremble again and her lips parted just slightly. Only the gods know how much it cost him to control the urge to brush his lips against the skin of her neck, as exposed as she was at that moment.

He felt disturbed by the need of burying the desire to find out what her skin tasted like. Swallowing hard, he finished binding the linen up and took a step back trying to think clearly once more.

Sakura felt herself wobble on her feet. Her whole body trembled and ached as the medicine acted on the cut.

The only reason she didn’t topple over was the General’s steady hand on her forearm. ‘I know it stings,’ he said softly. ‘But it’s a necessary evil to heal.’

‘It doesn’t sting. It’s like my whole body is on fire!’ She knew he was right but couldn’t help complaining. She took deep breaths and squeezed her eyes shut to avoid crying in front of him.

For a brief moment, Sakura believed the pain had finally managed to derange her, for she could swear she felt something soft and warm brushing tenderly against her left shoulder, near her jaw and her temple. Almost like kisses.

In the following minute, however, she was aware of the General guiding her by the arm toward the bed. ‘Sit down,’ she heard him say, still holding her by the arm.

Once she had seated, he let go of her and fixed the top of her hanfu back over her shoulders, properly covering her up. No lingering touches. It was official. She was definitely hallucinating.

Xiao Lang stepped away from her, his hands shaking. His heart seemed almost ready to burst out of his chest. He gulped loudly at the sight of her emerald eyes opening. ‘You should lie down and rest,’ he managed to say without quivering and she just nodded without complaint.

He watched her as she slowly lay down, her body seeming to have shrunk out of pain. He shook his head and heaved a sigh, running his hand through his hair in distress.

Ancestors… That woman would drive him crazy.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

Sakura was watching the General across from her at the table as she gnawed at the last of the Phoenix Claws they had for breakfast. He was methodically perusing a couple maps of the region, probably trying to set the fastest way toward The Forbidden City. S he wouldn’t be able to know for sure once he hadn’t talked to her since he tucked her into bed the previous day.

She regarded him through narrowed eyes as he, once again, leafed through the maps, mumbling something unintelligible under his breath. If she didn’t know him better, she’d think the man was unsure of what to do, except that would be stupidity. General Li never hesitated once he knew what he had to do… Right? If she could form a good enough plan of action without even looking through the maps, then how could he be having trouble?

She heaved a sigh, slurping on the bone marrow of the claw she was nibbling at and trying to remain as indifferent to him as he was making a point of being to her. She couldn’t deny that it bothered her, though. The distance he was putting between them. She was loath to admit it, but she missed the way they used to talk.

‘I’m feeling a lot better today,’ she said, her tone conversational and tentatively amenable.

He raised his eyes, gazing at her in silence for a couple seconds before going back to the maps. ‘Good,’ was his only reply, sounding strangely aloof.

Slouching in her seat, she started tapping her fingers on the tabletop and let out a long drawn sigh. She watched him in silence for a while as he kept rifling through the open maps over the table. Sakura leaned forward, trying to see why could he possibly be taking him so long to decide on a path.

‘I believe I’m even well enough for us to start the journey back to The Forbidden City if you’d like,’ she tried once more to engage him in conversation but he wasn’t interested in accommodating her.

With tired eyes, he briefly gazed at her from under a slanted brow before going back to analyze the maps. His lack of response made her anxious and she fought not to fidget or shuffle her feet at the awkward silence between them. She bit her lower lip, watching him mess around with the maps a couple more times. What exactly was his problem?

‘Are you not planning to go straight to the Emperor?’ She insisted on her questioning, trying to get an answer from him.

Xiao Lang gave up on whatever attempt he’d been making to avoid interacting with her and leaned back against the chair, facing her at last. ‘You really have problems in keeping quiet, haven’t you?’

She flashed him a cheeky grin. ‘I suppose,’ she shrugged, looking at him with a raised eyebrow. ‘If you tell what the problem is, I may be able to help, though.’

He merely raised an eyebrow as a slightly close-lipped smile. ‘You must think I’m really stupid, huh?’

Her smile vanished at his taunting tone. ‘I’m just trying to help,’ she muttered, crossing her arms and slouching against her chair with a sulky pout on her lips.

‘Why would I tell a prisoner about my plans? I’m not going to give you the tools to start working on a getaway scheme, Kinomoto,’ he replied, shaking his head with a crooked smile on his face.

Sakura looked away from him for a moment, staring back up at him on the following second. ‘Honestly, I wasn’t even thinking about that,’ she mumbled, unsure whether she’d actually intended for him to hear it or not. Inwardly, she berated herself for allowing a misguided sentimentality to overpower her better judgement. After all, she should be thinking about her escape.

It’s not that she’d forgotten, exactly, where she was standing with him. She was well aware of being his prisoner. Rather, their interaction the previous day had given her the false assumption that a remainder of camaraderie still existed between them.

‘I’m surprised you even know what honesty is,’ the General folded the map and tapped it lightly on the table, before rising to his feet and moving away from her.

She bit back the words that came to the tip of her tongue. She could see, now, that his insistence on shunning her was his attempt of maintaining a professional distance between them. They weren’t friends anymore. He was her custodian and she was his prisoner until he presented her and her grievances to the Emperor, nothing else. She could deny the acknowledgement left a bitter taste in her mouth.


 

It was decided that they’d start the journey back to The Forbidden City later that same day after an early lunch. By the time they were set to leave, the sky that had been a light grey in the morning displayed black clouds that forewarned of rain sometime during the day.

They walked out of the room and exited the inn side by side, ignoring the odd looks from the patrons on the establishment. While the General talked to the stable boy, Sakura approached the black stallion she knew so well. It greeted her with a neigh of recognition and she smiled softly and stroke the horse's face, burying her fingers into its glossy mane.

Her stomach churned and she felt a pang of guilt as she thought of her own mare. She had left Yin at the wooded area around the orphanage and now had no idea what had become of her trusty companion. A healthy horse left unattended for so many days like that... It had probably been stolen already.

She heard the General’s very distinctive tread as he approached her from behind and took a step back to look at him. Not for the first time, she could but admire the deftness with which he mounted on his steed. Once he had settled himself, Xiao Lang reached out for her, wordlessly ordering her mount with him.

Sakura furrowed her brow, looking from his hand to his face and back again. ‘Are we going all the way back to The Forbidden City on only one horse?’

‘You’re light enough without the armour on that it’ll make no difference,’ was his curt reply. ‘Give me your hand, at once.’

Xiao Lang hoisted Sakura on her side once the hanfu kept her from mounting the saddle like a man would. He held her well secured in between his arms before clicking his tongue to prompt his horse into an easy trot to finally start their journey.

She made a point of ignoring the way her traitorous heart started racing as they rode away, her back pressed to his chest, the motion of the horse shifting their bodies a bit too close for comfort.

Aiming to get some semblance of distance from him, Sakura kept her back in a straight rod position. ‘It’d be a faster journey if you allowed me to ride by myself,’ she remarked, feeling a flush of embarrassment rise to her cheeks. ‘More comfortable, too.’

‘And why exactly should I care about your convenience?’ He harrumphed in mockery. ‘And I already said I’m not going to facilitate your flight, Kinomoto.’

‘I didn’t think you held me in such high esteem, General,’ she rolled her eyes, giving him a scathing retort. ‘I know perfectly well that it’d be useless trying to flee from you,’ she heaved a sigh, getting tired of his snappish tone. ‘You are, after all, a far better rider than me.’  

‘I’m better than you at everything, Kinomoto,’ he declared, as cocksure as ever. ‘That’s why I’m a General.’

‘Didn’t you say I’ve become a Captain at a younger age than you?’ she inquired with a cheeky lilt to her voice. ‘I bet I could’ve made it as a General earlier as well.’

‘If you were a man and carried on being trained by me, then, yes, you could have,’ Xiao Lang answered without hesitation. ‘That was my plan for Touya all along.’

‘It’s odd that you just plain admit it like that,’ she observed, a little taken aback.

‘And why is that? An apprentice's achievements are their master’s merit, just the same,’ he sounded baffled that she didn’t understand that. ‘Besides, I have no interest in rewards. I was tasked by the Lord of Ten Thousand Years to produce a powerful army of exceptional warriors. Touya’s success would just be the testament of a duty well done and there could be no greater honour, despite what the arrogant fools at the Court might think about it.’

She looked at him over her shoulder with a raised eyebrow and mirth in her eyes. ‘You say that as if you weren’t just as haughty as the men at His Majesty’s Court.’  

He narrowed his eyes at her, bothered by her comparison. Knowing that she was only trying to goad him on for whatever reason, though, he pointedly ignored her.

Sakura chuckled quietly and turned her eyes back to the road ahead of them. ‘Regardless, I’m truly honoured to know that you favoured me so,’ she said as she thoughtfully bit her lip. ‘Though considering that Touya’s promotion wasn’t due to a great physical prowess, can you really claim that my achievements are related to anything other than my mind and spirit, Sir?’

He could only gaze at her in astonishment, unable to find a fault in her argument there. He had to admit that she was quite clever... For a woman. He buried that thought for later consideration and focused on the way.  

After a while, he felt her relax in his arms, her back flush against his chest. Upon further inspection, he noticed that her eyes were closed and her breathing was somewhat even. It seemed like she had fallen asleep, in spite of the bustle caused by the trotting of the horse.

It was no surprise, really. She was, after all, still weakened by her illness. The truth is that he wasn’t entirely set on leaving the inn yet; however, being alone with her and having her half-naked in front of him as he tended to her injury… It was starting to be too much for him to bear.

Holding the reins one-handed, he set her better against his chest and ran his hand over her hair and her cheek. “Just checking for a fever,” he thought to himself, as he took a deep breath, inhaling the floral scent from her tawny hair. Still blissfully asleep, she just snuggled into his embrace, soaking up on his body heat.

Throughout the rest of day, the weather had threatened rain but fortunately held firmly cloudy, turning the travel strangely sombre. The silence didn’t help, either and at a few points, the General wished Kinomoto were awake to fill the heavy taciturnity.

The sun was starting to set when he decided to rest for the day. He guided the horse into the woods, some ten minutes out of the main road. After some consideration, he chose to stop at a clearing where they’d be somewhat sheltered against the weather, as it was sheltered by the trees. Only then, he woke the girl up.

As they dismounted, they had to walk around the area for a bit to take the stiffening out of their legs before setting the watchfire to spend the night there. Before losing what little light they had left, he tended to her injury.

The bandage change was a silent undertaking. She was stronger and therefore had a better control over her pain, even if redressing the wound still stung like it was on fire. She could feel the sharp sting of tears behind her eyelids as he prodded around the injury to clean it before applying a new sheathing of the ointment, yet her pride demanded that she didn’t cry in front of him.

She couldn’t help feeling conflictingly grateful by the distraction the proximity to his body provided as he leaned over her to swathe her waist. And it worked both ways, too. Her pain would be a good excuse to the shiver that passed through her frame whenever his warm breath caressed her neck. Or when his chin brushed on her shoulder.

She couldn’t pretend to draw no pleasure from those little touches, despite the discomfort caused by the pain. And deeply she was aware of them being anything but casual. Yet, she went along with it, pretending not to notice what he was doing as he pretended nothing happened.

As he finished bandaging her, he stepped away, allowing her to fix the top of the hanfu back onto her shoulders. She, then, curled up near the fire, hugging her knees to protect herself from the cold breeze as she watched the General portion the food they’d brought from the inn. They ate in a remarkably comfortable silence.

Sakura sighed still tired in spite of having slept most of the way there and furrowed her brows at what she could see of the sky. ‘There are no stars in sight,’ she mentioned, pinching her nose. ‘It might rain soon.’

Xiao Lang raised his eyes to the sky as well. ‘It has been threatening rain the whole day,’ he pointed out. ‘Anyway, the nearest village is at least half a day away, so it’ll serve no purpose to travel during the night,’ He shrugged, stifling a yawn. He stood up, walking around the clearing and went to tend to his horse. ‘Let’s just hope it doesn’t pour and the trees keep us mostly dry.’

‘Here’s hoping,’ she breathed quietly, letting the words be drowned by the howl of the wind and the rustle of the trees.

Sakura got up to stretch her legs for a moment, before moving closer to one of the larger trees there with the thicker top and sitting by its trunk in hopes of protecting herself from the elements as best as possible.

Rain began to slowly drizzle down from the dark night sky, falling upon them in a numbing stream. Xiao Lang approached Sakura, sitting beside her and leaning against the same tree as her. He tried to relax by rolling his shoulders, one at a time and feeling them snap with a sigh.

Differently from Sakura, he was exhausted. Not only because of the journey. He didn’t get much sleep at the inn, either, while she convalesced. What, with having to squirm himself on that damned armchair or lying down on the floor.

If he was being honest, he hadn’t slept well before finding her, either. When he set out towards Yuhan after talking to Daidouji, he was so fixated in finding Kinomoto that nothing else had mattered. He did not think. He simply rushed to catch up with her. And it had been providential that he’d done so. She would not have resisted much longer.

Now that he had her, he couldn’t chance to lose her for being reckless. He had to proceed with caution. He absentmindedly watched as the fire was slowly extinguished by the light shower. Everything ached all of a sudden as fatigue seeped into his weary bones and he lied his head back against the tree, closing his eyes before sighing. Were it not the risk of her running away, he’d take the opportunity to rest for a bit.

He heard a little shuffling beside him and opened his eyes, watching Kinomoto as she hugged her knees tightly. She was shaking like a leaf. Though she was wearing a winter hanfu, it wasn’t designed to be worn outdoors. Not like his military garb. With a sigh of resignation, he shucked his cloak from his shoulders and draped it around her shrunk frame to keep her warm.

Sakura looked at him, meeting his eyes and holding his gaze for what felt like a long moment before looking away in silence. She was thankful but was too proud to express it in words. He was fine with that, though. He didn’t need her gratitude.

Sakura kept an eye on him as he went back to perusing the clearing and noticed how he kept blinking his eyes blearily and stifling his yawns. By the third time she saw him nod off and jerk immediately awake, she took pity on him. ‘You may rest at ease, General,’ she suggested softly with more fondness dripping in her voice than she intended to. ‘I’ll take the night watch.’

‘Humph,’ he grunted, shaking his head though there was no real bite in his words. ‘And allow you to escape while I sleep? No, thank you.’

She rolled her eyes, huffing in exasperation. ‘Why would I run away in the rain on a moonless night? I’m a woman, General. I’ve always been a woman. I didn’t suddenly become unintelligent just because you found it out!’

He looked at her with a raised eyebrow. ‘You were raised on this region…’

‘Yes, locked up inside the house, just as any other girl,’ she waved at him dismissively. ‘Are you so tired you can’t even think straight anymore?’ she inquired, the pitch of her voice increasing slightly in impatience. She shook her head, clearing her throat. ‘If you keep pushing yourself like this, you’ll get sick, Sir,’ she reasoned, taking a deep breath to calm herself. ‘You know very well that it’s practically impossible to navigate through the night without the moon or the stars to guide ourselves. Isn’t that why you took us away from the main road, in the first place?’

He didn’t reply to her argument one way or another; an awkward silence settled between them until Xiao Lang yawned once more while rubbing his eyes.

‘General,’ she let out a long, deep exhalation, wrapping the cloak tightly around herself. ‘You know very well how dangerous this region is. It’s overflowing with criminals and the Shanghai rejects after we took back the City Guard Office,’ she reminded him. ‘You need to be alert on the chance we run into thugs.’ Her voice tone was practically imploring. ‘I can keep watch while you sleep. Please.’

He looked at her for several minutes, his mind going all over the place as he mulled over what to do.

‘I’ll still be here in the morning. I swear it, Sir,’ she insisted.

Xiao Lang shook his head, slightly, his eyes closing heavily as he tried to stifle another yawn. He looked at her for a moment longer. Maybe he was crazy. Maybe she had finally broken him and managed to make him lose his mind but he was willing to trust her to still be there the next morning. He didn’t say anything but allowed himself to slouch against the trunk of the tree and didn’t resist when his eyes slowly drooped. In almost no time, his breathing got shallower and deeper as he fell fast asleep.

Sakura gazed at him and noticed the way his shoulders had relaxed. She felt at peace with only the sound of his breathing and the cadence of the rain splatting on the leaves of the trees surrounding them. She bit her lip and raised her hand, hesitating for a moment before taking a lock of hair from his face with the tip of her fingers.

‘Have a good night, General,’ she whispered softly before sitting back straight to follow through the watch.


 

Xiao Lang guided his stallion at an easy trot through the road. His charge was pressed against his chest, held tightly in his arms as she dozed off. Muttering something under her breath, she nestled better in his arms and he could but smile as he nuzzled on the top of her head.

He’d woken up at dawn, startled about falling in a deeper sleep than he’d thought possible, and found her standing up a couple steps ahead of him. He immediately took notice that she had taken his sword during the night and when questioned about it, she just shrugged giving it back to him while reporting that she had decided to secure the perimeter once the rain had stopped and thought it better to take precaution in case she encountered any bandits.

He would never admit to feeling a lump in his throat at the thought that she had every opportunity to kill him as he slept. She had also gotten the chance of escaping him – and with his horse, nonetheless – as she took it to a shallow brook close by so the animal could drink some water as she refilled their waterskins. And yet she didn’t.

He felt a shiver run down his spine and tightened his hold on her, just slightly, breathing in the scent of her hair – the flowery perfume had almost vanished and the night spent at the forest in the rain had caused it to soak up with the blend of a wooden-ish scent and petrichor – before looking back up to watch the road ahead of them. He was aware that a long absence from The Forbidden City would result in a lot of questions about his whereabouts. A lot more inquiry that he was willing to answer. And yet he couldn’t find it in himself the inclination to hasten.

The war against the Huns had ended and what was waiting for him at the Court at the moment was empty celebrations and void decorations. All and all the things that he couldn’t care less if he tried. He was glad to let the frivolities pass without his presence. Let the Lords at the Imperial Court get drunk and sing praises to themselves as if they’d had anything to do with their victory. It didn’t matter anyway. Not when the Army lost Captain Kinomoto.

He shook his head, trying to clear his mind. When they finally arrived at The Forbidden City and he reported that Kinomoto Touya was actually a woman, all of Captain Kinomoto’s feats and accomplishments would probably be expunged from History, to be forgotten in order to wipe off the dishonour of having a woman join the army. That was not to mention whatever punishment the Emperor might deem she deserved.

He had to take a deep breath, trying to disperse the pained throbbing in his chest.

Holding the reins with one hand, he raised his free arm and steadied her in his embrace, bringing her closer to his chest. He couldn’t understand why the thought of something happening to her bothered him so much. He shouldn’t care. He shouldn’t feel as conflicted as he did. She broke the law, therefore, she was a criminal and deserved to be punished. She’d been lying to him for as long as he knew her, therefore, she wasn’t to be trusted. He should hate her... However, he didn’t.

No, he didn’t. And as much as she infuriated him, he longed for the companionship. Even now, with her asleep in his arms, he felt melancholic like he was missing on something due to her silence.

He sighed tiredly and decided to stay overnight at the next village so that they could rest properly. It was a testament to how tired she was that she even could sleep on the back of a horse. He also needed to buy more medicine and bandages before following through with their journey.

Straightening up over his steed, he moved his hand to the small of her back, feeling the way her ribs bit into his arm. She had lost a lot of weight while running away and was looking somewhat gaunt with her cheekbones slightly more prominent than it had been when she was a soldier. At an inn, she’d eat better than at the road and she needed the nourishment.

The angry clopping of several hooves and the fast whir of wheels from behind them brought him back to the present and he frowned as his body tensed up. That region was, after all, overrun by thugs and it would be a wonder if they didn’t cross paths with at least one gang during their travel. Taking a minute decision, he moved out of the road and into the surrounding forest, guiding his horse toward some high bushes to remain out of sight just as frantic voices reached his ears.

‘Kinomoto,’ he shook her by her shoulder, waking her up.

Sakura rubbed her eyes and yawned, sitting up to look at the General. She immediately took notice of his tense shoulders and furrowed brows and knew that something was wrong. It didn’t take her long to guess what was happening as the sound of frenetic bustle approached them. ‘Shit,’ she muttered, suddenly wide awake. She knew exactly what all that fuss meant, though she had no idea whether the General would interfere. ‘What are we gonna do?’ she asked quietly.

‘Let’s survey the situation, first,’ he replied automatically, waiting for the cause of the turmoil to show up.

His horse huffed, getting restless and Kinomoto immediately rubbed his neck, calming it down, just as an elaborately gilded carriage pulled by four horses made a sharp curve, almost tumbling down with its passengers inside. He swore under his breath as he saw that the coach was followed by a group of Imperial guards who were trying to slow down and shake off what was clearly an experienced pack of road thieves.

He spurred his horse to move after them through the forest and halted again just before the next turn as one of the bandits had jumped onto the carriage, taking down the coachman and stopping the coach a few meters ahead. He had counted ten bandits and in the time it took him to dismount his horse and unsheathe his sword, they’d took complete control of the situation, easily defeating the unseasoned soldiers who were escorting the carriage.

The General furrowed his brow, twisting his mouth into a scowl. ‘Stay hidden,’ he ordered her, handing her the reins of his horse.

Sakura stared him in the eyes for a moment, her back straightening up as her whole body language turning into something fierce. ‘They’ve killed Imperial soldiers,’ she murmured briskly with a frown as she swiftly dismounted beside him.

Before he could even think of arguing, she had already pulled his bow from the saddle and tied the quiver around her waist.

He squinted his eyes, watching as she swiftly nocked an arrow, pointed at the ground, and nodded at him, ready to act on his signal. Xiao Lang looked at her for a couple seconds, then he took a deep breath and signalled for them to get moving. They slowly crept their way toward where the bandits were forcibly pulling a scared couple out of their carriage and roughening up the two or three soldiers still alive.

Sakura could feel her heart drumming inside her chest as they approached the thugs and she recognized the odd frenzy that threatened to overcome her whole body if she allowed it. Taking a deep breath to hush her mind and get focused, she felt her senses sharpening and her awareness heightening as she remained in control. They were two soldiers taking up ten jaded, merciless fighters. Their victory was hanging heavily on the surprise element and if they lost their window, they might not be able to get out of the fight alive.

They’ve taken a few moments to analyse the field and exchanged a brief glance, nodding to one another, understanding flowing effortlessly between them in the matters of war. Her face muscles were taut with tension as she pulled the bow to full draw, aiming at the only man of the bunch who carried a firearm. Then she waited for his signal.

The first arrow hit her target right on the neck and fell the man before anyone even knew that something had happened.

With an expert fluidity in her movements, she readied another arrow and fired at the thug closest to the couple, though a brief hesitancy out of fear of hitting the hostages caused her to hit the man in a non-lethal way. She cursed under her breath, readying another one and taking him down before turning to some thugs that were closing in on them.

Before Xiao Lang even had the chance to approach the men that had been clobbering the surviving soldiers, she’d already shot down the tree bandits that were an immediate threat to the hostages before they could think of using them as human shields.

The General watched as three thugs charged at him brandishing their swords expertly. The men were fast and skilled and, if he were a lesser soldier, they'd have taken him down easily.

He quickly parried the first attack and turned his body to dodge the swipe of the second sword, as he smashed his heel on the knee of the third ruffian. When the third man, whose leg was now broken, doubled over with a yowl of pain, he used his momentum to throw him on the second of his companions, successfully using him as a shield to avoid the sword that came on his direction. He almost didn’t manage to avoid the thrust of the first thug, being grazed on the arm before rolling to his back and piercing him from behind.

With the corner of his eyes, he saw the second of his opponents getting near him from behind and felt his blood freeze as his blade was still buried in the guts of his previous foe. Before he could even react, though, he heard the hissing of an arrow and saw the man fall with an arrow sticking out of his neck.

Slightly wide-eyed, he looked toward Kinomoto but shook his head with a smirk on his lips at how accurate her aim was. He really shouldn’t be surprised, though. “Touya” had become a proficient archer, after all.

He pulled the blade from the corpse in front of him and turned to where the four remaining thugs gawked slack-jawed at the two strangers who just took down the six more experienced men of the pack in a matter of minutes. ‘I suggest that you drop your weapons,’ He frowned, heaving a sigh at the fact that they were barely men. ‘Unless you want to meet the same fate as the others.’ 

One of them looked from him to Kinomoto and sneered, finding some kind of foolish backbone. ‘I don’t take orders from a man who needs a woman to protect him.’

Xiao Lang didn’t even have time to answer to that as an arrow pierced the boy’s hand that was holding his sword.

‘I’ve got five more arrows, tough guy,’ Sakura seethed at him. ‘One for each of your friends and two more with which to pierce your nether parts,’ she remarked off-handedly, with another arrow already locked in place. ‘I guarantee that when I’m done with you, you’ll be begging me to kill you,’  

‘It’d be smart not to antagonize her, kid,’ the General scoffed as his lips curled contemptuously. ‘Women can be crueller than men.’

The boy-man stared furiously at her while holding the hand that had the arrow stuck. ‘You whore,’ he hissed through bared teeth before falling to the ground with an arrow sticking out from his left eye.

‘Oops,’ she sneered, redirecting her aim toward the three boys remaining. ‘It slipped...’ she said not sorry at all.

‘It was deserved,’ Xiao Lang conceded, shaking his head. ‘But you shouldn’t make threats you don’t plan to follow through,’ he mentioned, turning his attention to the bandits.

She harrumphed. ‘It would be such a waste of arrows, though,’ she muttered.

‘True enough,’ he shrugged with a smirk.

The three surviving thugs exchanged glances between them and dropped their weapons, deciding to surrender. Smart boys! 

To be Continued.

Chapter Text

Sakura furrowed her brow as she tried to clean up a bleeding gash over the left eyebrow of one of the surviving soldiers that she and the General had just saved. It’d be a lot easier if the boy were to remain still.

‘Where did you learn to do that?’ the boy inquired, looking at her in a daze. ‘I’ve never seen a woman wield a bow like that,’ he went on when it became clear that she wouldn’t answer him.

Sakura rolled her eyes in exasperation. Captain Kinomoto had become one of the best archers of the Empire, so she was quite sure that the impressionable boy had probably never seen anyone wield a bow quite as she did. ‘Instead of wondering about my life, you should focus on becoming a better soldier,’ she told him, holding the soldier's face in a tight grip and forcing him to look away so that she could better reach the cut to spread some ointment on it.

‘Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!’ he yelped, flinching away from her. ‘That shit burns!’

‘Stop the whining,’ she grumbled, rolling her eyes again. ‘This is just a scratch.’ She covered the whole cut with the paste effectively stanching the blood flow all the while hearing him swear out loud. Sakura could do but sigh at his exaggerated display. ‘I can’t believe the Army’s allowing such wimps in their ranks now…’

He scowled petulantly, like a sulky kid, taking offence with her harsh words. ‘I'll have you know that I’ve been chosen by General Xue himself to join Lord Qin’s guardsmen.’

Sakura narrowed her eyes, saving that piece of information for later consideration. 'And if it weren't for General Li's interference, you would have failed your mission,' she replied, her voice scathing and matter-of-factly as she proceeded to return the medical supplies to their satchel.

Squinting his eyes, the soldier took hold of her wrist, stopping her movements.

Sakura had no qualms in looking up to face him directly, her experience as Captain taking over her and projecting an authoritative aura. She just gave him a cold stare and forcefully pulled her arm from his grasp.

There’s a truth to be said about the eyes of a killer. Sakura didn’t delude herself thinking she was anything else. As a soldier, she had killed her enemies and her attitude seemed to be enough to unnerve him. The boy instinctively bowed his head, looking away and mumbling something that sounded suspiciously like “scary woman” .

Satisfied with his contrition, Sakura smirked and continued stowing the medicine away not noticing the pair of amber eyes warily watching the exchange.


 

The General was talking to the nobleman and the senior surviving guardsman. Lord Qin was the Emperor’s representative at the Southern part of China. Though Xiao Lang had never held a conversation with the man, he knew the elder to be one of Wei’s most faithful supporters, which made the situation all the more unsettling.

Though thankful for the General’s intervention, Lord Qin was rightfully furious and outraged at the earlier events, complaining about the incompetence of the new Honour Guard sent to him from The Forbidden City.

‘In all the time I’ve served The Lord of Ten Thousand Years, I’ve never experienced something quite like this!’ He complained, almost hysterically. ‘I was very understanding when General Xue called back my experienced guardsmen to replace the palace guards who died at the Shāngu battle,’ he went on. ‘I expected their replacement to be inferior but never this unqualified!’

A yelp of pain from the other side of the road, followed by a string of curses, attracted the General’s attention from the noble’s bitter diatribe.

Xiao Lang frowned watching as Kinomoto, with her back turned to him, tended to the injuries of a younger soldier as he spewed out words that would make a proper lady blush. And yet she seemed unperturbed and maintained a stream of idle chatter as she worked.

Their position gave him a clear sight to the slack-jawed awe on the boy’s face and he irritably gritted his teeth. He felt himself tense up, clenching his fist at his side and biting back a growl when the boy dared to take hold of the girl’s arm. Before he could do anything, he took notice of the way she took on a more commanding stance with just the slightest shift and the boy’s face paled with something akin to fear and shock as he let her go.

He watched as she swiftly stood up, brushing her clothes clean of the dirt and dust from the road before moving toward his horse with the medicine satchel in hands.


 

Sakura sauntered toward the General’s horse, tying the satchel back to the saddle. Absentmindedly stroking the animal’s mane, she watched as another surviving soldier hurled insults at the captive bandits.

She could but sneer. It’s easy to be all tough now that the bandits were tied and offered no danger but she still remembered how the surviving soldiers had cowered, pleading for their lives before she and the General swoop in and saved the day. Idiot, she thought, looking away just to find the nobleman talking to his hysterical wife near their coach. “Talking to” might actually be a bit of an understatement. Yelling at was more like it. Another idiot. Instead of acting like such a brute, if he were to hold her in his arms to reassure her, Sakura was sure that the woman would be a lot calmer by now. But showing kindness, even to one’s spouse, in front of other men could be seen as a weakness so he obviously had to protect his frail male ego! Men! Ugh! They’re all idiots!

She saw the General approach her from behind the nobles where he had been helping the survivor senior officer to hitch the horses back to the coach. ‘Are you sure that the Buffon shouting at his wife is actually Lord Qin?’ she inquired with a raised eyebrow when he stopped by her side. ‘By the quality of his guardsmen, I would never imagine that he represents the Emperor at the South of the Celestial Empire.’

Xiao Lang looked back to the nobleman, trying hard not to smile at her remark. That woman was just too smart for her own good. ‘I also had my doubts,’ he said, pressing his lips together with a small frown. He shook his head. ‘He is in possession of the Imperial Seal, though, so…’ he merely shrugged.

The General turned back to look at her but took notice that the boy she had been tending to was watching them with a great deal of interest. The boy’s face took an ashen hue at meeting the General’s icy glare.

‘Do you believe those three capable of getting His Lordship safely to the nearest village, at least?’ she asked but didn’t really wait for an answer. ‘Because I don’t think they are and, as an Imperial Officer, Lord Qin’s safety befalls over you, doesn’t it?’

‘I don’t need you to tell me of my duty,’ he muttered under his breath.

‘I’m just saying,’ Sakura rolled her eyes and shrugged. ‘After all, I know how much you love to play the keeper of nobility,’ she dismissed his bad mood with a biting comment.

The General looked at her through narrowed eyes. ‘Your petulance is unbecoming, girl.’

She grinned, her hands behind her back, her shoulders swinging from side to side in a pretence bashfulness as she looked at him through her eyelashes. ‘Why, General,’ she spoke in a whisper. ‘Let’s not argue in front of these poor men. As you can see through Lord Qin’s example, it’s demeaning for a man as powerful as yourself to lose your temper with a defenceless little woman such as me,’ she motioned with her head to point at the noble couple.

Xiao Lang looked away to hide his smirk at her remark, knowing that she was far from defenceless, and watched as the nobleman spat insults at his wife’s face.

‘In front of the bandits, he was wailing and crying out for help like a coward,’ she heaved a sigh in irritation. ‘Now, to deal with his wife, he’s suddenly all tough and manly. It’s pathetic!’

He frowned, looking at her with a sidelong glance. ‘You shouldn’t speak like that about a representative of the Emperor,’ he warned her.

She raised an eyebrow at him. ‘You also think that; even if you don’t dare to say it out loud.’

He turned her way lifting his eyebrow trying to convey scepticism at her presumptuous observation but knew it to be a lost battle. He’d been too honest and open with his pupil to be able to fool her now. ‘Then I guess I’m fortunate enough to have you to put my thoughts into words for me,’ he said at last.

She chuckled quietly, her shoulders shaking slightly with her suppressed laughter. ‘I just know you very well, General.’

He shook his head with a tight-lipped smile and turned back to face the nobles. ‘If you say so,’ he looked to where the bandits were tied up and being kicked by another soldier and his smile vanished. ‘They really are idiots. And green. I can’t figure out how they were sent to protect such a high standing member of the court,’ he commented, aggressively running his hand through his hair and ending up by stroking the nape of his neck.

He took a deep breath, steeling himself to deal with them. It was the last thing he wanted but his duty really demanded that he’d protected Lord Qin until the next village where he’d be able to call on better security. The sooner they resumed the journey, the sooner he’d be rid of the annoying courtier.

Despite Lord Qin’s indignation at being ordered around, even if by someone as infamous as General Li, they were set to move in no time at all. After some deliberation, they decided that the best option was for them to tread carefully since their unit had been severely compromised. The senior guardsman was to pull the small convoy, followed by the coach. The young man Sakura had tended took to the coachman’s seat as the General kept close to the coach’s rear. The last soldier was to escort the thugs and their horses. The next village wasn’t too far, maybe an hour away at a normal trotting pace. On their current configuration, however, they’d take twice that time.

‘How’s your wound? Did you strain it while wielding the bow?’ the General asked, reaching out to Sakura from his horse as he hoisted her, holding her tightly between his arms. She had tried to convince him to let her mount one of the many horses they had available but he wouldn’t even hear about it.

‘It’s fine. It’s healed enough that the fight didn’t compromise me,’ she said, waving her hand dismissively.

He grunted a reply and prompted his horse to start moving. ‘We’ll be spending the night at the village,’ he informed her after a couple seconds of silence. ‘Lord Qin has asked me to conduct the interrogation of the prisoners personally after turning them in to the Security House.’

‘Do you think they’ll turn up something from it?’ She questioned, thoughtfully. ‘And how long do you think we’ll be required to stay there?’

‘I plan to be done with the questioning by tonight and depart in the morning,’ he asserted, grouchily. It was quite clear that he wasn’t keen on complying with the courtier’s wishes.

‘We could go during the night if you rather proceed with our journey,’ she proposed, looking at him over her shoulder. ‘I’m well enough to keep moving. And I don’t think it’ll rain tonight.’

Xiao Lang shook his head. ‘You’re well rested because you slept during the day –– I didn’t,’ he said as he raised an eyebrow. ‘Plus, we’ll need to buy more medicine and bandages before departing since you spent what we had on that boy,’ he grumbled, nodding his head toward the soldier who was leading the coach.

‘Should I have let the boy bleed to death, instead?’ she inquired, rolling her eyes.

He let an exasperated sigh escape his lips. ‘Could you, please, try to act like a normal woman and stop questioning me all the time?’

‘It’s a bit late for that , don’t you think?’ She glanced at him with a raised eyebrow. ‘Besides, what exactly do you mean by “a normal woman” , General?’

Xiao Lang leaned into her, pressing his chest against her back and narrowing his eyes as he took in the look in her face. ‘I’m certain that you must’ve learned how to conduct yourself in front of men while living in that orphanage,’ he mentioned off-handedly, noticing the slight twitch of her eyes as she straightened her back, getting as much distance from him as the horse allowed.

Sakura considered answering his veiled jab but thought better of it. As much as she didn’t want to admit it, he was right. She didn’t really need to question him the whole time. As much as she feared to lose her voice if she started silencing herself, she was better than this and had always prided herself of knowing how to chose her battles.

Plus, even though she had rested for a while before they ran into the bandits, she was unusually tired. She was clearly not as healed as she thought if such a brief encounter wore her out like that.

With too much idle time and little to do as they escorted Lord Qin’s coach, Sakura felt her eyes landing on the carriage and then on the soldiers with them and back as she mulled over the events they stumbled upon. The words so carelessly thrown by the boy she fixed earlier causing a stir in her mind.

It was possible that her personal dislike of General Xue was tainting her perception, however... Was it not odd that such unqualified soldiers had been selected to guard one of His Imperial Majesty’s most loyal men? And that they had been handpicked by General Xue whose bias towards Prince Yue’s more radical ideas was well known amongst the Army’s high echelon.

Unlike the General, that usually didn’t pay attention to Court’s intrigue, she was well aware that there had been whispers about Wei’s inability to remain in power due to his advanced years. Whispers that she suspected to be fomented by His Imperial Highness himself, as the Prince has always seemed overeager to take his father’s place.

She shook her head. It’d be no good if she jumped to conclusions. She needed to think that whole situation through. Yet her intuition was telling her that there was something brewing in The Forbidden City and there was more danger to be found ahead than just a couple road bandits.


 

They turned in the bandits to the village’s Security House, leaving Lord Qin under their protection in spite of the nobleman’s complaints. Xiao Lang being adamant that his security wasn’t his responsibility anymore.

Xiao Lang decided to get a room for them before he started questioning their prisoners. Sakura walked behind him, watching as the General proudly marched through the village’s narrow streets as he pulled his horse toward the inn. She couldn’t suppress a smirk at noticing the way people all around them stopped to see him parade along the way as if he owned the place. She didn’t doubt that their presence there was one of the most exciting things they’ve seen in a long time.

Her smile vanished, though, when she saw a group of young girls admiring him quite openly and giggling like fools from behind their fans. She frowned frankly put out by their shameless ogling. "The nerve of some people! ", she thought, bitterly. What was she, after all? Invisible? For what those girls knew, she and the General might’ve been a couple and, yet, they had the audacity to lust over a supposedly married man in front of his “wife”.

It was with a sadistic satisfaction that she took in the sickly and apologetic looks in their faces as they noticed her and their eyes met. She had no doubt that she looked absolutely terrifying right then.

Xiao Lang gave her the horse’s reins and asked her to wait for a moment as he went to call on a stable boy.

Sakura nodded and ran her hand over the horse’s mane, distractedly, making him neigh satisfied by the affection. It was a beautiful animal. She was reminded of Yin and regretted, not for the first time, having lost her. She thought of how strange it was that their ride, their travelling companion, didn’t have a name and decided to fix that. Everyone should have a name, right?

‘You must be tired, huh, boy,’ she cooed, petting him lovingly. ‘I promise to ask the General for some nice and juicy carrots for you, how about that?’ She asked, laughing at his animated neighing as if he actually understood her.

Xiao Lang approached her, a lanky boy keeping up with him. ‘Come on. I got us a room,’ he motioned for her to follow him once the stable boy stood by her side, grabbing the reins. ‘I have to get back to the Security House, you’ll stay in the room. Get the chance to rest as much as you can,’ he directed, looking over his shoulders as they walked through a corridor toward their room. ‘Tomorrow we’ll resume our journey and will not stop at an inn again. I’ve also asked the innkeeper to gather some medicine, bandages and food for us.’ They stopped in front of a door and the General opened it, motioning for her to get in.

‘Can you ask for some carrots to Yan as well?’ Sakura requested, standing in front of him and looking him in the eyes.

Xiao Lang furrowed his eyebrows and tilted his head. ‘Yan?’

‘I named your horse,’ she clarified, shrugging bashfully. ‘He deserves a little treat, don’t you think? After carrying both of us for such a long time.’

‘You really are a peculiar woman, aren’t you?’ He shook his head, trying hard to contain a smile.

Sakura shrugged again. ‘Will you ask for it?’ she insisted. ‘For the carrots.’

He could only gaze at her in admiration for a couple seconds. ‘I’ll ask. Now get in. I’ve requested that they draw a bath for you. Get some rest, okay?’

Sakura just nodded, satisfied at the prospect of taking a bath after spending the previous night in the rain.

Xiao Lang hesitated just minutely before handing her the key to the room. ‘I’ll be back as soon as I’m done questioning those three,’ he sighed, turning on his heels and marching out.

Sakura watched him walk away. The hint of a smile on her lips. He was acting differently towards her, she noticed. And though things might never get to how they were before, who was to say that needed to be a bad thing?


 

Sakura was leaning against the windowsill of their room lost in thought as she watched the moon on the cloudless sky. She frowned, sighing over their unscheduled stop as it was a perfect night to spend in the open air. They would’ve made a great deal of progress if they hadn’t had to rescue Lord Qin.

That is, they would’ve made progress if the General decided to proceed through the main road instead of following the river path like he was insisting on doing before they ran into the bandits. She knew that man well enough to grasp his hesitation in reaching The Forbidden City, though she couldn’t figure the reason why. After all, as he’d said before they left Yuhan, no matter the reason, she had broken the law and he knew his duty.

Knowing him, she would’ve expected the General to press forward in order to deliver her to justice as soon as possible. It’s not like he’s never done it before. He usually planned his marches to have as few stops as possible, only accommodating the horses, never worrying about tiring the men.

She shook her head, looking over her shoulder to the curtain that separated the bedroom from the washroom hearing the sounds of splashing water as the General took a bath. That was the first time since the General found her at the Yang’s courtyard that he washed while she was awake. It was a great sign of trust, even if unconscious, that he put himself in such a vulnerable position around her.

It always amused her that, whether or not the General despised life in Court and their habits, at least in regards to cleanliness he was very much like any other courtier. Where most soldiers would go days, and sometimes weeks, without taking a bath, he would only postpone bathing when absolutely necessary.

She would often envy the way Xiao Lang just showed up all freshened up in the mornings while she had to spend days concealing the worst of her smell with oils and other tricks, too afraid of taking a bath and risk being seen. That was why befriending Tomoyo was such a relief. At the safety of Tomoyo’s walls, she could just relax and scrub all the grime from her skin without fear of being found out.

Sakura turned back to the window, watching the moon. Thinking about her friend brought a bittersweet smile to her face. The concubine was certainly worried about her. She was probably feeling guilty, as well. Sakura didn’t doubt that Tomoyo had had the best of intentions when she disclosed her past to the General. She didn’t know how much was revealed but it had been enough for the General to find her at her childhood home.

Knowing what a great storyteller Tomoyo was, she had no doubt that her friend must’ve spun a great tale about all of her misfortunes. The concubine also knew Xiao Lang wasn’t as tough and cold-hearted as he pretended to be. It was no wonder that the General looked at her with such pitying eyes at the sight of Mrs Yang scornful glare. She had hated it. And if she hadn’t been so weak at the time, she would undoubtedly have provoked the General enough to force his hand. Her pride would have demanded that he killed her before feeling sorry for her.

Maybe it was a blessing that she’d been sick, after all.

For a brief moment, as she listened to the man on the other room moving around in the tub, she allowed herself to conjure the memory of his unclad chest as she’s seen many times while they trained together.

Closing her eyes, she heaved a sigh as the tip of her fingers touched her lips. It didn’t take her much to perfectly recall the feeling of Xiao Lang’s body against hers as he pinned her against the wall at Tomoyo’s place. She wondered if he really meant it when he said that he liked her boldness. Would he enjoy it the same if she took the initiative and kissed him again?

Sakura shook her head, taking a deep breath. As much as she might enjoy losing herself in that man’s arms, she couldn’t relinquish herself as long as he could claim to own her.

She focused her eyes on the moon once more. Plus, it was not the time to give into daydreams. She suspected they –– or rather, General Li would be needed at The Forbidden City soon.


 

Xiao Lang walked out of the washroom, his eyes immediately finding the girl outlined by the light coming in through the window. She was wearing the hanfu he’d bought for her earlier when heading to the Security House. The pink of the peony flowers embroidered over the viridian fabric had caught his eye and he felt a sudden desire of seeing her enveloped in such a delicate get-up. She looked exquisite. And in spite of her hair still being shorter than that of most women, there was no way he could see anything else. Thinking about how obvious that seemed, he couldn’t believe that he’d ever thought her to be a boy. He hated that he could only blame himself for his blindness for, if he hadn’t seen it before, was because he hadn’t wanted to see. There was no other explanation.

‘I think we should try and reach The Forbidden City as soon as possible,’ she said, startling him out of his thoughts.

He took a deep breath, crossing the room until he reached the window and stopped by her side. ‘Why? Are you in such a hurry to meet your destiny?’

She closed her eyes, leaning her head on the windowsill. ‘I’m merely concerned about The Lord of Ten Thousand Years’ safety.’

He felt himself freeze on his place and looked at her with wide eyes. Whatever answer he expected out of her, that wasn’t it. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘I don’t believe that the assault on Lord Qin was an accident,’ she turned his way to look him straight in the eyes. ‘His Lordship’s security was sloppy and untrained, yet the boy I patched up was boasting about how they were handpicked by General Xue himself to protect him. Those weaklings were selected to protect Lord Qin. Lord Qin! One of the Emperor’s most vocal supporters.’

The General raised an eyebrow, curiously. ‘And did he just volunteered that information?’

Sakura shrugged. ‘The kid had a loose tongue so I took the opportunity to shed some light on a couple suspicions.’

He crossed his arms over his chest, looking at her through narrowed eyes. ‘And what have you gathered?’

‘It seems General Xue has made several changes to The Forbidden City’s guard’s roster. He’s called out to more experienced soldiers who were on guard duty all around the Empire and exchanged them with men of his choosing –– and we’ve seen the quality of his selection. Supposedly it’s to replace the men who died at the Chifeng Passage Battle, but…’ Sakura shook her head, heaving a weary sigh. ‘I think it’s possible that the Emperor’s most trusty men might be purposefully being put in a vulnerable position,’ She bit her lip, her eyes unfocused as she leaned back against the wall. ‘Either to be eliminated or to raise questions about the Emperor’s ability to rule.’

The General narrowed his eyes as he watched her explain her thoughts. He hadn’t told her, but he’d found out by interrogating the road thieves that the ambush on Lord Qin had been ordered by someone unrelated to the gang. He had suspected a political rival, but if what she said was true, then the situation was even direr than he’d imagined. ‘And you’re sure about that?’

‘As I said, the boy had a loose tongue. He won’t go far in the Army if he can’t help bragging at the sight of a woman,’ she could but roll her eyes.

Xiao Lang raised an eyebrow, gritting his teeth. ‘Were you flirting with him?’

‘I wasn’t flirting! Why are you–?’ She spluttered, her nostrils flaring as she glared at him. ‘Is that all you took from what I just said? Pay attention, General!’ She breathed out an exasperated sigh. ‘There might be something brewing in The Forbidden City!’

He raised his hands, arms out with his palms forward. ‘And what are you suspecting?’

‘Insurrection.’ she said. The word causing a shiver down his spine. ‘Our Emperor is advanced in years. His Counsellors and some Generals, like Xue Lian, have often implied about it being time for him to abdicate. Except His Imperial Highness is far too self-centred to be a good ruler. We both know that His Majesty is against Prince Yue’s intemperance. They even quarrelled in front of the Councillors and Officers when the Prince was particularly insolent. Prince Yue is unscrupulous and unwise and our Sovereign knows it.’

The General twisted his mouth and creased his brow. ‘Do you really believe Prince Yue would be capable of trying to overthrow the Emperor –– his own father? The Son of Heaven himself?’

‘I believe him capable of anything as long as it gets him what he wants,’ she said grimly with a sneer. ‘You know Prince Yue and General Xue are two of a mind. It also worries me now that His Highness has spent months over months travelling all over the place taking care of mysterious “Imperial matters” . And then they’re suddenly endangering the Celestial Empire representatives?’ She shook her head, her eyes narrowed and jaw tensing up. ‘It’s not a good sign and it seems like too much of a coincidence...’

They remained in silence for a couple moments and then Sakura looked him in the eyes. ‘You, Sir, are the only General I believe to be completely incorruptible by the Prince. You need to be near the Emperor to be able to protect him.’  

Xiao Lang looked away from her, knocking lightly onto the windowsill with a closed fist. He wasn’t keen on going back to The Forbidden City yet. Despite knowing what was expected of him, he wasn’t sure whether or not it would be the right thing to do. He was trying to buy some time to think it over and come up with a solution. He couldn’t deny, though, that her suspicions were solid, especially with what he’d learnt from the thugs. Those circumstances were the direst possible. ‘Aren’t you afraid of what’s going to happen to you once we’re back into The Forbidden City?’

‘My duty to the Emperor has always come before my own safety, General,’ she replied, her shoulders straightened back.

On that very moment, he could see his pupil’s determination reflected on her eyes as clear as day. He could but wonder how would he give that woman up when more than never all he wanted was to have her by his side.

A heavy silence fell over them as Sakura turned her eyes back to the moon and saw it hiding behind a faint patch of clouds. ‘My destiny isn’t going to change, General,’ she let out a sigh of resignation. ‘The safety of The Son of Heaven lies on your presence, though…’

The General just nodded. ‘We should go to sleep, then. Let’s head out tomorrow at dawn. We can get the main road to The Forbidden City from here and it’ll cut down our travel time in half.’

Looking at him from the corner of her eyes, her lips pursed. ‘Why were we taking the longer path, to begin with?’

‘I was trying to think things over,’ he explained, running his hand through his hair.

‘What was there to think about? It would always come to this, General,’ she replied, having come to terms with her fate.

‘Yeah… I guess you’re right about that,’ he said, taking a deep breath and facing her once more. ‘Let me check your wound and go to bed. Starting tomorrow… We’ll have a long and tiresome journey ahead of us.’

Sakura merely nodded, getting away from the window not noticing that the moon was once more shining bright on the night sky.

To be continued...